The North Water (McGuire)

I was going to let this one go by. There didn’t seem to be anything new here. In the end, it appealed to my interest in exploration more than fiction. And I’m glad it did.

What a stunningly complex and well-executed novel. It features several dynamic and compelling characters, including one of the most evil men I’ve seen outside of a Cormac McCarthy novel. McGuire has clearly done his homework and presents the details of the life of whalers in a sparing and necessary fashion. There’s almost a documentary quality to this book. There is no judgment; this is just what was necessary to survive in this version of a pioneering life. There’s also a larger lament at play here – a kind of elegy for a time that these men are trying to hold onto, but is necessarily and inevitably passing them by.

There’s not a wasted word here. This is tightly-written page-turner. Read it.

The North Water

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Devil on the Cross (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o)

I admit that I am not sure that this man’s last name is. The front cover of the book only has Ngugi on it, so I am guessing it is that (+ the accents that I have no idea how to make). In any event, I have some sense of the circumstances under which he wrote the book, and I can see how they are both remarkable (he wrote it, the author’s note tells me, while he was in detention because of his play, I Will Marry When I Want) and how it probably kept him on less than friendly terms with the authorities.

This is a powerful book, satirical and sharp in places, somewhat pedantic in others. The ending is shocking, but it is an earned shock, and there is a slice of optimism there. The language and imagery are blunt, and the power of the book is in its whole (which is a nice way of saying that some of the parts were pretty slow). There’s not much plot, though, and so I don’t think I can teach it. I’m glad I read it, but I think it stands as mostly an historical document both of the author’s life and that time period in Kenya’s history. I am not saying things have or haven’t changed there. I don’t know enough about the country. The critique of capitalism is, in my mind, quite valid and remains true. I just don’t think it would engage my students.

Poor White (Anderson)

I tried Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio once, a while back, and could not find my way into it. After reading this one, though, I think I should try again. This is a straightforward story of change. People try to change themselves. The nature of work changes around them. Money changes people. Women struggle with their changing roles and ideas. All of this change collides in one small town. People are hurt and, Anderson implies, something important is not just lost, but forever lost. The prose moves well here, and the passages in which Anderson pulls the camera back, as it were, and comments on the changing country are stirring and true. I am so glad that Belt Publishing brought this one back.

Salt Houses (Alyan)

This is a debut novel? Wow. What comes next? With a remarkably sure hand, Alyan guides us through the generations of a Palestinian family. Time moves on, people may switch locations, but some things remain still and some things remain stuck. With all of the violence that surrounds this extended family, which provides an ever-present backdrop, it is the violence that they do to each other and themselves that is Alyan’s topic. This book just makes you want to reach out to each character and gently say, “Stop. You don’t mean that. Be kind to X. Be kind to yourself.” But time keeps going. People get old; people get older. The description of one character looking up and realizing that she’s 32 is both gorgeous and painfully true. And everywhere there is food and everywhere there is family. And it was wonderful to be with them for 310 pages.

A debut novel? My, my.

author’s site

and she writes poetry too

An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (Cofer)

I once filmed a segment of a documentary with Ms. Cofer. If you have insomnia and a lot of TV stations and live on the East Coast, you may be able to catch it one day, likely between 2-3 in the morning. She was so nervous and so nice that I instantly liked her. Colleagues recommended one of her stories to me, but I don’t think I ever followed up. So when, in search of generally untold stories, someone recommended this book to me, I was eager to try it. I thought it might be a nice companion to Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise.

I was wrong.

The writing here is just not very good. There are some clumsy mistakes. The plots of these interconnected stories are mawkish. There are glimpses of possibilities in a few of them, ones I’d want to encourage if these came from a student, but for use in the classroom. . . no.

Enemy Women (Jiles)

I really love Jiles’ ability to combine research with narrative. Here, she includes excerpts from primary documents as epigraphs for each chapter. And these epigraphs are not just window dressing. They remind us that the events she describes – primarily Adair’s efforts to get home – are real and that the stories of the so-called “enemy women” need to be told. As with WW2, I wonder if we romanticize the conflicts too much, think of things in strokes that are too broad. Jiles will have none of it. Turn to this for a story that needs to be told and is very well-told.

If Today Be Sweet (Umrigar)

Generally, I ration myself when it comes to Thrity Umrigar’s novels. If I don’t, they are finished too fast. Tonight, without even giving it much thought, I devoured the last 150 pages or so of this one. I finally looked up when I realized that I only had about 20 pages left, but I couldn’t stop at that point. So I finished, with a tear or three in my eyes, both because of the beautiful writing and because of how the story ends. The plot also intersects a bit with my personal life at the moment, so that probably stirred a tear of two as well.

When I am not completely absorbed in her novels, I reflect on what I think makes them work so well. Here, Umrigar moves so fluidly from present to past to present again that though there are chapter breaks, I found myself pretty much ignoring them. I just wanted to continue.

Umrigar just builds worlds. Word after word, moment after moment and, especially in this case, meal after meal. The gentle drama of everyday interactions makes me hold my breath in recognition. The moment, for example, when Sorab’s dinner with Susan starts badly is one I recognized. People, Umrigar suggests, often have the best of intentions, Drama happens when they collide with the intentions of others, even or perhaps especially when those others are loved ones.

There is an element in this book that I would generally reject. This may be a bit cryptic here because I’ve always sought to avoid spoiling things. But Umrigar makes the presence of this character work because she knows when to have him exit. Though the exit is unexpected and sad, it is also another moment of truth.

There is hope here, a rare and welcome quality these todays. Despite the pressures of living, the compromises we make, we can be our best selves. Today can, indeed, be sweet.