15. All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu

5 Mar

Dinaw Mengestu All Our Names

My quest to read more literary fiction by writers of color has led me to many African War/ American Immigration books lately, putting me in a decent position to comment on a jacket-quote on All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu, which says that “This is not an immigrant story we already know.”

Eh, yes and no.

It is a version of the same African War/Immigration story we already know, and the title is unfortunately almost exactly the same as another recent book in the genre, NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names, but it’s nonetheless a refined and intense book told in alternating perspectives, and I enjoyed reading it.

The chapters labeled “Isaac,” are about a poor young man from an unidentified African countryside who spends time hanging around the university in Kampala, Uganda just before war against Idi Amin breaks out in the 1970s. “Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries” he says, or at least dress like them. He comes to the capital for reasons more personal than political, ready to shed his name and create himself, but soon falls under the spell of another young striver named Isaac who has better revolutionary credentials.

The chapters labeled “Helen” are about an aimless and depressed young white social worker in the American midwest who is assigned to Isaac, who has arrived in America under mysterious circumstances. The two embark on a romance under furiously segregated conditions, and it’s true that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s easy at this distance to gloss over the details and fail to imagine how oppressive and impossible it would have been for a black man and a white woman to date in a small town in the ’70s. After a humiliating and possibly dangerous meal together in a restaurant, Helen writes about the toxic effect prejudice has on the relationship:

“It seemed impossible now for us to move forward, and I assumed after that lunch that if there was any relationship left it would live on in the strictest privacy, late at night and exclusively in his apartment, with all the blinds closed and the lights off.”

And here is the simple but powerful passage when she and Isaac first hold hands in public (and they had to go to Chicago to do it):

“We hesitated, looking at our hands, not each other, then gathered our strength and moved forward. We walked. It didn’t feel like a victory over anything, but I was proud and, to an equal degree, scared. After walking one block like that I was grateful for the feeling of his hand in mine, and even for the anxiety that came with it. After two more blocks, the gratitude had turned to sorrow that we hadn’t had this sooner. All this time, I thought, we’ve been at best only half of what was possible.”

Mengestu’s writing is fast-paced, elegant and guarded. Notice how much distance and analysis there is, even in explosive moments like the passage above. The alternating chapters are short and feel honed-down to the bare essentials. There are a few major plot twists with large surprises, and the time-lapse intertwined stories complement each other, increasing the intensity of both climaxes…not a bad effect for a love story, come to think of it.



The J.M. Coetzee Award For A Bad Female POV

1 Mar

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.43.34 PM

Sometimes female characters written by men make me want to throw the book across the room, for a particular effect that I’m going to call The J.M.Coetzee, and now I’m instituting an award for it—shortly to be granted to another lucky author. I identified this problem a few years ago, reading Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, right after reading Disgrace, which I loved and for which the South African/Australian author of literary fiction won a Booker Prize.

In Diary of a Bad Year one of the three POVs is a young, attractive woman from the Philippines who does some cleaning and typing for an older, lecherous intellectual male character, and we read her supposed thoughts. The three POVs run side-by-side on each page, a neat conceit, and the two male perspectives are great. But in the portion of the book I read before giving up in disgust, the young woman thinks mostly about a) the male intellectual she works for and b) her ass, sex, how hot she is, “my silky moves,” how she is “racy, exciting and exotic,” and her ass some more.

At some point I just wanted to say, “No, dude, she doesn’t. You think about her ass. This is not what any woman thinks about all day long.”

I read submissions for a literary magazine, and I can tell you that it is only male authors who mention a female character’s breasts or nipples within the first few pages of introducing her. Female characters written by women rarely think about their nipples or breasts (shocking!). Women writers also rarely describe their female characters’ nipples or breasts unless it’s relevant to the story. (No one of either gender mentions male nipples, except the brilliant Mark Leyner. Go Mark.)

Someone could write a compelling female character who does nothing but think about her body, or a compelling person-of-color who is really into their own hot racial sex appeal, but that’s not what The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award is for. The young woman in Diary of a Bad Year doesn’t have a character. She’s reduced to her skin color and body parts, which is especially offensive when it’s put, allegedly, in her own words.

Coetzee’s heroine also fails some version of the Bechdel Test, which asks in part “Does your female character talk about anything other than male characters?” She thinks an implausible amount about her lecherous old boss and his academic pursuits, which could not possibly be of any interest to her. When she’s not doing that, she’s thinking about her husband (having sex with him), or sometimes God (another man; her religiosity is another racial caricature).

I know I am not supposed to speak for all women, but I will go out on a limb and say that any woman with a lecherous, disgusting boss does her absolute best never to think about him. If she suspects he’s looking when she walks away, her thought is not “Oh yeah, my ass is awesome, let me wiggle it for him to enjoy.” Her thought is, quite simply, “Ew.” She also definitely, totally, never imagines in loving detail how he masturbates about her:

“He hasn’t tried anything while I am with him, but what he gets up to after I exit is another story. God alone witnesses what he gets up to then, God and the blessed virgin and the chorus of saints. There is a pair of panties of mine he pinched from the dryer, I am sure of it. My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone and wraps himself in my undies and closes his eyes and summons up visions of my divine behind and makes himself come.”

It’s so ridiculous that I would laugh if I weren’t full-body heaving. Dude, she has never thought that. She cleans your house, takes your money, and gets out of there as fast as she can.

The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award goes to a writer who reduces a female character to a male authorial sex-fantasy, and who probably created the female character in the first place in order to tell us more about whatever man they really want to talk about. The girl is there “speaking in her own words” in order to put a lot of sexy sex on the page without the author having to decrease the dignity of the male character by having him cop to it. The girl can also admire the man and talk about what a good lover he is! It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s also bad writing if you consider that in good writing your characters are supposed to be human beings who make sense and are motivated by internally coherent concerns.

J.M. Coetzee can and should take on any POV he wants. He’s written very successful women in other books.  Moreover, I defend anyone’s right to write a misogynist character if it seems important to them to do so. Disgrace, the book Coetzee won the Booker Prize for, is a fairly sympathetic portrait of a professor who date-rapes a student, and I loved that book and went out to buy more of his work. But if I’m going to put up with a misogynist character, I demand that they be well-executed.

I will leave you with the words of Coetzee’s heroine, after the male intellectual has treated her to some yucky innuendo:

“I turn my back and off I go with a waggle of the bum, his eyes avid upon me.”

No, I don’t. I promise I don’t.

14. Things I Like About America, by Poe Ballantine

19 Feb

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 9.06.43 PM

There was a desperately unhappy and bored time in my life when I learned to draw the map of America freehand, all the states named, in the right places, mostly in the right shape; the line of the Mississippi helping to define the erratic edge of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana; the jigsaw of the northeast represented accurately; some rough attempt at 2-long, 1-tall scale done with the handspan between pinkie and thumb; all of it ballooning, squashed and demented, but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country. Or really I was thinking about elsewhere, freedom, escape from myself and towards a place where no one would expect anything of me.

I never left Brooklyn, but that’s my road story. Something about the map of America seems to evoke them, to call forth the idea that there’s a place out there where one could dispense with the bullshit, live the right way, just be.

That this itself is known bullshit and escapism only makes it more attractive.

Poe Ballantine is a master of the road story, a drunk, writer and late-bloomer, lover of women, laborer at crap jobs who, in his first published book, Things I Like About America, chronicles decades of drift. At some point he says he’s written 17 unpublishable novels, that 90 percent of what he writes is no good. His age skips from 17 to 28 to 43. He takes busses and stays in motels. He lives in Eureka, Louisville, Niagra Falls. He’s a man with no ties, down to his last few dollars, going somewhere new. There’s something deeply consoling about this much freedom…and this much failure.

And oh is his voice great.

Here he is describing an early encounter with crack cocaine:

The first inhaled hit of volatilized cocaine is the best: it launches you through the roof of the sky. There is no greater high. It makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe. You love, with the power of God, all things: house plants, bumblebees, lint balls, even the cat shit in the sandbox beneath the sink. I thought of Charlene and loved her for once purely, without resentment or remorse, without a trace of indignation for having neglected me. I longed to share this feeling with her, this unfathomable, infallible, and virtuous love. So I called her apartment but she wasn’t home.

It’s witty, unpretentious writing with many great turns of phrase. The high of crack “launches you through the roof of the sky” and “makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe.” Elsewhere he says, “I was dazed by love, like someone hit in the forehead with a two-by-four.” Elsewhere yet, running out of money, he writes, “I had about a month before my feet would be sticking out of a bunk at the Baptist Mission.” I liked the image of the feet, his ability to paint himself into a landscape.

There’s a point when the traveling gets to be too much, when the bad jobs reach their nadir, when he dreads again confronting, “the strangers, the empty room, the low-paying job where they would lead me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, the willful isolation and the poverty.” So he goes back to collage, likes it, almost graduates, but doesn’t stay, because,

“How can you expect to produce anything interesting or different while sitting in secure, climate-controlled comfort year after year, doing exactly what you’re told? How do you get your certificate of long-standing conformity and then expect somehow to stand out from the crowd?”

This brings us to the why of the road story. In the chapter “Never and Nowhere,” Ballantine says that

“for twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place. I’ve tried to explain the place but I can’t. It is something like nowhere but not a ghost town. It is alive.”

This is so strange that it bears examination. He’s not looking for an idealized way to live, he’s looking for a nowhere. I don’t understand this exactly, but I sense truth it in, the truth that makes road stories sad, haunted by suicide, driven by hope and failure in equal measures. Maybe when we hit the road we’re looking for a safe place to fail among all the other failed people, an anonymous room, a lowered expectation. Maybe we’re looking for a thing that isn’t there.

Ballantine almost kills himself, but then he makes it through somehow, and the book is evidence that his career slowly blossoms by its own lights.

This is another gem from Portland, Oregon small-press Hawthorne, who also publish Lidia Yuknavitch and Tom Spanbauer. These books are so great, so likeable, so well-written that it’s hard to understand why they aren’t front-and-center in every airport in America.  The world would be a better place, I tell you what.



The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, Charles De Lint

11 Feb

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles De Lint

Lillian woke up and had a long, lazy stretch. What an odd dream, she thought. She lifted a paw, licked it, and had just started to clean her face when she realized what she was doing. She held the paw in front of her face. It was definitely a paw, covered in fur and minus a thumb. Where was her hand? She looked at the rest of herself and saw only a cat’s calico body, as lean and lanky as her own, but covered in fur and certainly not the one she knew. “What’s become of me?” she said. “You’re a kitten” said a voice from above.

It is such a pleasure to experience clean prose and good storytelling when reading books aloud to children (….as anyone who has had to suffer through that godawful Harry Potter aloud probably knows). A children’s book has to move the plot along with every sentence, use every detail, create a perfect balance of scene-setting, emotion and action. I’ve found such skill in Beverly Cleary’s work, and now again in The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles De Lint.

The book was published in hardcover in 2013 and I bought it for my daughter a little prematurely because it’s about a little girl, magic and cats, which if you are the parent of a certain kind of little girl is all you need to hear. She’s now six-and-a-half and the perfect age for it. We’ve read a few chapter-books before, but this is the first one that she’s been truly eager to get back to. The story follows Lillian, who gets turned into a cat and then has various adventures trying to become a girl again.

De Lint’s name is familiar, and he’s published more than 70 children’s and YA books. Some authors get lazy at the tail end of a resume like that, but De Lint is clearly a master craftsman.

I am not enamored of the illustrations by Charles Vess, who is talented at drawing nature and animals but struggles to make human faces recognizable from one frame to the next. My daughter pointed it out right away, so criticizing the illustrations is another of her pleasures in the book! Like mother like daughter.

13. Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

9 Feb

Guantanamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi

First up, this book is not depressing, and is fun to read. I realize that’s a weird thing to say about a torture chronicle written by a current Guantanamo detainee, but I lead with it because I bought it only from a sense of duty to know, as an American, what my government is doing. I cracked the spine with dread, and then was amazed to find myself uplifted, not by the crimes and injustices of the American government, of course, but by the ability of the author to remain human and humane in the telling of his ordeal. Guantanamo Diary is a page-turner and a classic of war literature and I beg everyone who reads my blog to buy it and, ideally, go sign the ACLU petition for Slahi’s release.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi is a Mauritanian citizen who has been held in Guantanamo for 13 years, without charges, and who has experienced some of the most brutal interrogation performed at the facility—he has been tortured. He makes a compelling and seemingly open case for his complete innocence (and was cleared by Mauritania and Jordan before being extradited to the U.S. in 2002). A U.S. District Court judge ordered him released in 2010, but the Obama administration has appealed and he remains in Guantanamo to this day. At least one military interrogator resigned over his treatment. The book was written in 2005 and has been classified ever since, while the Slahi’s pro-bono lawyers fought to gain access to it. It was finally redacted and published January 2015. The volume’s editor, human-rights activist Larry Siems, writes of Slahi:

He has the qualities I value most in a writer: a moving sense of beauty and a sharp sense of irony. He has a fantastic sense of humor. He manages all of this in English, his fourth language, a language he was in the process of learning even as he wrote the manuscript.

All of these excellent qualities are harnessed in service of giving a precise, damning, humorously rendered detainee’s-eye view of American intelligence proceedings. Slahi often makes points “to be fair” to his interrogators or guards, puts himself in their position, tries to understand how they’ve ended up where they are, mentions good treatment as well as bad, etc. He writes:

If there’s anything good at all in a war, it’s that it brings the best and the worst out of people: some people try to use the lawlessness to hurt others, and some try to reduce the suffering to the minimum.

After being interrogated in Jordan for 9 months he reports being happy to be in American custody because, “I wrongly believed the worst was over, and so I cared less about the time it would take the Americans to figure out that I was not the guy they were looking for.”

Slahi learned English in detention, from his guards and interrogators. There’s a wonderful/horrible moment where he’s being dragged along with a bag over his head noting some of the finer points of spoken English: “…at the same time I was thinking about how they gave the same order two different ways: ‘Do not talk’ and ‘No Talking.’ That was interesting”

Over time, he says, “those responsible for GTMO broke all the principles upon which the U.S. was built and compromised every great principal such as Ben Franklin’s ‘They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.'” The abuses he writes about are chilling, from being forced to drink 22 ounces of water every hour for weeks at a time, sleep deprivation, beatings, stress positions, forced ingestion of seawater, isolation, enduring extreme cold, ice-torture, sexual assault and much more. One of the most surprising to me was that female interrogators seem to be routinely used to sexually harass, molest and humiliate the devout Muslim prisoners. What a great use of women in the military! The people responsible for coming up with these tortures shame and degrade American service-people.

Slahi eventually cracks under torture and confesses to anything and everything.

It’s probably stating the obvious to say that I don’t believe honorable people treat other human beings like this, whatever the ends may be.

I’ll end with one of his closing statements:

I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned first-hand. I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself. I don’t expect people who don’t know me to believe me, but I expect them, at least, to give me the benefit of the doubt. And if Americans are willing to stand for what they believe in, I also expect public opinion to compel the U.S. government to open a torture and war crimes investigation. I am more than confident that I can prove every single thing I have written in this book if I am ever given an opportunity to call witnesses in a proper judicial procedure….

Please everyone, buy the book and sign the petition. It is the least we can do.





12. Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

2 Feb

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

A successful pop musician writing a good novel as John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has done, is such a rarity I can’t think of another example. Wolf in White Van is more than a curiosity of interest to Mountain Goats fans, it’s a stand-alone wonderful book, a maze of slippery, non-chronological text about a solitary mail-order fantasy-game designer who suffered a disfiguring accident in late adolescence, and his ability—or not—to move past it.

The game, Trace Italian, is like a dark choose-your-own-adventure, whose movements and players make up a part of the narrator’s story. From its opening moves, excerpted at length, it becomes clear that Darnielle is creating something unique, weaving together gamespace with adolescent urges of loneliness, violence and longing, and where we will end up, we do not know.

For the third time since sunrise you see men in gas masks sweeping the highway. It’s dusk. They are approaching the overpass where you hide in the weeds. You can only guess, but guesses are better than nothing: you calculate your chances of escaping unnoticed at 15 percent. When the nearest of them is close enough for you to hear the sound of the gravel underneath his yellow rubber boots, you know that the time has come for you to act.
Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.

Some people, as I’ve seen from reviews, feel that this is a book whose plot points are subject to spoilers, and that the ending is a surprise. I thought that what type of accident narrator Sean suffered and how/why it happened was pretty obvious from the opening pages, so I’m going to discuss it—exit now if you want the unadulterated experience.

So (assuming people afraid of spoilers have now all left the premises….) this is a lone-shooter book, about a kid with angry, aimless urges and access to a firearm. Here he is discussing his early Conan the Barbarian fantasies:

I took control of the place, of the scene: I made it mine. Groans echoed in the cave. Brittle bones broke beneath the knees of my crawling subjects. We had moved from San Jose to Montclair a few months back; it had ruined something for me, I was having a hard time making new friends. I had grown receptive to dark dreams…. Backyard Conan, thrown together from half-understood comic books only, took several liberties with the particulars. The Conan that the world knew didn’t drink blood, wasn’t ruthless and cold…. When I became Conan things were different; his new birth had left scars. I ruled a smoking, wrecked kingdom with a hard and deadly hand. It was dark and gory. No one liked living there, least of all its king.”

I have always been interested in this topic, I suppose I remember enough of angry adolescence that the atrocities that occur have never seemed so improbable.

The real reveal is in the relationship between the older and wiser present-day narrator and the teenager, and what the Trace Italian—a stand-in for the narrator’s unchecked imagination—ends up meaning. That part, I will not spoil, though I wish I could, because I found it breathtaking and very sad.

The other pleasure of this book, is that Darnielle’s prose is wonderful in the same way his Mountain Goats lyrics are wonderful. A video game named Xevious is “very relaxing” and playing it is “like watching flowers bloom. Weird metal airplanes flew over the green and gray background dropping bombs on everything, explosions splashing like soft cymbals…”.  Getting medication in the middle of the night is “too sad and horrible to be worth it.” A gloriously atmospheric passage in gamespace  reads “pass through crystal gate/ cut central cables/ food, water, gauze/ sewn patches for light uniform.”

I wonder if Darnielle will write other books.

11. Lord Peter, The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, by Dorothy Sayers

31 Jan

Lord Peter

I’m now re-reading all of the more obscure Dorothy Sayers books, delving into the corners of Lord Peter Wimsey’s existence that I wrote about earlier this month. There are twenty-one stories here collected—which seem to not be all of them, despite the “complete” of the title—and include two dated after Sayers stopped writing the novels. One takes place on the birth of Peter and Harriet’s first child, and the last, “Talboys,” is set in a happy future where the couple has three sons and the mystery involves not a corpse but Mr. Puffet’s stolen peaches. The story was not published in Sayers’ lifetime, and seems to have first appeared in 1972.

I’ve read that Sayers is credited with establishing literature’s first instance of a serial detective with an inner life, and the stories provide a good sense of Peter’s arc, from the earlier more theatrical work to the ravishing last two, where the authorial voice is more intimate.

The logs in the hall chimney were glowing a deep red through their ashes. Peter raked them apart, so that the young flame shot up between them. “Sit down,” he said; “I’ll be back in a minute.” The policeman sat down, removed his helmet…

Wimsey’s early cases are ghoulish, chilling, humorous and erudite, with a splash of 30s glamour and medical oddity. A lovely book.





Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 415 other followers