The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)

Though I am no fan of genres, I did find myself flipping to the back cover of this book more than once because I kept wondering: What is this? Apparently, the author called it a “factless autobiography.” Elsewhere, it’s listed as fiction.

It’s a non-linear meditation. Part-philosophy, part character study. It’s presented in fragments that were, I believe, re-ordered posthumously. But order, I suspect, did not matter much to Pessoa. There are elements of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” here. The ‘character,’ if the author’s persona can be called such a thing, is a clerk who seems to manage accounts. There are parts that I annotated heavily, parts that I found repellent, and parts I didn’t understand.

Though Pessoa would probably reject the notion of reading the book and then discussing it with others, this book definitely proves that it is not good for a reader to be alone.

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Dear Martin (Stone)

There is often a necessary delay between historical events and how they are addressed in fiction. I don’t just mean the time it takes for a writer to respond, but the interval that is somehow required before we can consider the event in print and then (because I think it has to follow) in fiction.

The (my?) increasing awareness of the brutal treatment of people of color at the hands (and guns) of the police has certainly been explored in non-fiction written for adults.  See Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All for a recent and excellent example. But right now, I can’t think of any fictional examples.

But writers of young adult fiction (a genre that is becoming increasingly complex while at the same time remaining difficult to define) are not shying away from the challenge. Angie Thomas’ brilliant The Hate U Give is a powerful example. Stone’s Dear Martin, though it overlaps a bit in terms of its topicality, is both a very different and an equally outstanding book.

Like Thomas (and Sharon Draper in Tears of a Tiger – come to think of it, these are all first novels), Stone appears to violate a storytelling convention. The event that might normally be reserved for the conflict is, instead, a catalyzing one. But that’s a poor reading on my part. These stories are less about the dramatic event – perhaps because there’s a tragic inevitability to it and more about the aftermath.

Stone’s book, written briskly in the present tense, retains its urgent tone for all of its 208 pages. I read it in two days, not because it was written for young adults and therefore easy, but because its pages demand to be turned. Like Draper’s novel, Stone uses a variety of formats – narrative, dialogue, news accounts, letters – to propel the story forward. I don’t know what the first draft of the novel looked like, but in this version, there is not a wasted moment; every page, every character – everything matters. There is, from my perspective, plenty to discuss here including post-traumatic stress disorder, stereotype threat, and the sins of our fathers.

I also admired how Stone drew me into Justyce’s perspective when he took the bus to see Martel. I knew I was behind his eyes because I was making the same assumptions he was. And Stone, here and elsewhere, makes it clear that there are no angels here. Justyce has his flaws. He is, despite his name (which seemed heavy-handed at first, but pays off, well, I made a promise to avoid spoilers), no more an example of exceptionalism than he thought he was. His friendship with Manny, his friend who is slowly awakening to the world, is nuanced and honest. And his mother, though her pages are limited, is also dynamic. Where others may have sketched a cliche here, Stone creates humanity.

The person who recommended this book to me wrote that he had to check to find out if the author is female. I think I know at least one of the reasons why. Stone’s descriptions of Justyce’s mental, physical and verbal awkwardness is absolutely pitch-perfect. His sweet clumsiness makes him endearing and reminds us that he is, in many ways, just an ordinary teenage boy. And that’s part of the tragedy here. What happens to him is becoming increasingly ordinary. But this book reminds us that we can’t let it become normal.

I can’t let the title pass without comment. Justyce, for reasons he never explicitly articulates (in part because he’s not sure himself) writes letters to Dr. King in order to try to figure out how he would respond to events in Justyce’s life. King, Justyce realizes, ends up teaching more by example than anything that can be discovered in his writings.

Nic Stone’s site

a much better review, the one that convinced me to read this

Hurma (Al-Muqri)

I think that to understand a satire, one must understand what is being satirized first. I am thinking here of things like Ulysses or Possession. While I can appreciate the artistry of each, especially the latter, I always read with the feeling that there were things I wasn’t getting. In the case of the Joyce, this feeling was reinforced by the Professor who gave us one week to read it (in the interests of expediency, I abandoned all of the support materials I’d accumulated when I’d read the book for a 10-week independent study), and I bailed out after maybe 25 pages. We were assigned to write a reflection and the Prof read mine and one other similar one out loud and said ours were the only 2 honest reflections he received. In the case of the Byatt, I read it in preparation for teaching a demonstration lesson, and I was stunned by the decision to high school students. When I asked my host teacher about her reason for selecting it, she mentioned all of the ways it mocked traditional graduate school approaches to literature. She came off sounding like some independent school English teachers do – like a wannabe college professor who couldn’t get a job or tenure so was taking it out on her high school students.

All that’s to say is that at times I found myself thinking of this novel as largely an inside joke. I wanted to read it simply because I’d never seen anything written by a Yemeni author before, but I have the feeling that I only reason I thought of it as satire was because I read the back cover. To be fair to myself, I did get a few moments and the ending is incredible in a number of ways, but in between, I suspect I was the one nodding while other readers were laughing the knowing laugh of insiders.

City of God (Doctorow)

I heard an interview with Doctorow that ended with a question that is neither unreasonable nor unexpected. The interview asked Doctorow’s which movie adaptations of his books that he liked. (Full disclosure: Ragtime (the movie) was a turning point in my life.) Doctorow’s response: None.

I think part of the drive behind this book was to write something anti-cinematic, both in form and content. This is not only non-linear, it is downright random, both in form and content. There are threads of a story to pick up from time to time, but not everything is prose. There are lyrics, for example. And there are more than a few anti-Hollywood diatribes which (because of the interview, I admit) sound like they are Doctorow getting on his soapbox.

So maybe I’m not wise enough to get the sophistication of this book, with its apparently erratic structure and its philosophical musings, but this one just didn’t work for me. Give me Ragtime (the book and movie) anytime.

Reputations (Vasquez)

I admire the way Vasquez unpacks his stories, his sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. Big things happen, but they do not occupy much space. Instead, he is more engaged by the way we respond, the intimate details of choice made and not made. Here, he explores the idea of reputation, how one is cultivated and how one, often quite easily, is destroyed. He seems to suggest that we at times become metaphors for ourselves, our whole lives spent trying to live up to our reputation.

Storming Heaven (Giardina)

I used to go to West Virginia once a year to visit my grandmother, but I haven’t been there since she died. I’ve always been curious about the place, and maybe the recent election renewed my interest. After I read James Green’s book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, a friend recommended this one and, as usual, her recommendation was solid.

I admit it took a little while to warm to the book. I knew Giardina was casting her net wide by introducing the time, the place, the people, and the issues. The dialect can, at times, seem a bit hokey. But once the plot gets going, this story of The Battle of Blair Mountain becomes a riveting tale on both a personal and political level.

And with the LaborFest coming this weekend and everything. . .

The Story of the Night (Toibin)

I have to ration certain authors, and Toibin is one of them. I don’t remember how I stumbled on The Master, but ever since, I’ve loved every single one of his books. I pull one of his books off the shelf when I need a sure thing, and once again, he came through. The thing is, I am not sure how he does it. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here. Just sentence upon sentence of seemingly straightforward sentences that, put together, tell (in this case), a half-Argentinian man living in Argentina throughout the Falklands War, the privatization of the oil industry, and the introduction of AIDS into the international vocabulary. I know that sounds like a lot (and I’ve left out things like the death of someone’s mother and a character’s passive decision to become part of a corrupt arrangement), but it really sneaks up on you and builds up to a well-earned emotional climax.