Wednesday, February 21, 2018

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride


Most of this novel is buildup to John Brown’s historic raid on the Harper’s Ferry armory in 1859.  Some reviewers have made this book sound entertaining, but for me it was anything but.  Henry Shackleford is the young narrator—a slave whose father dies in a barroom skirmish initiated by John Brown, who mistakes Henry for a girl.  For the next 300+ pages, Henry, always in a dress but gender-neutrally nicknamed Onion, accompanies John Brown in his Midwestern crusade to recruit an army of abolitionists.  Then nothing much happens, until Onion goes to Virginia to help prepare for the raid and “hive” the slaves into Brown’s rebellion.  If ever there was a book with too much dialog and not enough action, this is it.  As a history lesson, it has value, but the arduous task of reading it was a tedious undertaking.  I think I could have read the beginning and the end and not missed anything.  The most interesting aspect of this novel to me was the choice of a boy in a dress as the narrator.  This case of mistaken gender, which morphs into more of a ruse, allows the narrator to view most of the action without actually participating.  Then my question is why didn’t the author just make the narrator a girl, but perhaps he felt more comfortable with a male narrator who never actually has to wield a weapon.  The bottom line is that the editor of this book should have recommended shaving about 200 pages from the finished product. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE COLOR OF WATER by James McBride


This memoir is the clear-eyed story of a white woman, Ruth, raising her 12 children, in the projects in Brooklyn.  Both of her husbands were black, but Ruth was raised as an Orthodox Jew, mostly in Virginia.  She ran off to New York as a teenager, abandoning her beloved mother and sister but escaping her abusive father.  Both of her husbands predeceased all of their children, leaving behind their devastated wife with a house full of children to support and raise.  This book is Ruth’s story, as told with love, humor, and admiration by son James.  He devotes minimal coverage to his siblings, all of whom graduated from college and had successful careers.  Ruth, having buried her past completely, was a tough nut to crack, and James quit a lucrative job in journalism in order to devote himself to extracting Ruth’s story.  James himself was somewhat of a problem child as a teenager and spent 3 summers with his stepsister’s family in Harlem.  There he managed to straighten himself out, just by discovering and immersing himself in the kind of life he finally realized was not exactly glamorous.  Ruth may not have been a saint herself, but she certainly comes across as one.  I am so glad this was not a tearjerker.  It’s a tale of triumph, peppered with no-nonsense admonitions from mother to children to pay attention to what she considered to be important—school and church, not money.  Her children were her primary legacy, but after she raised all twelve of them, she never slowed down, becoming involved in the community.  She was a pretty smart cookie and earned her own degree at the age of 65.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward


Jojo is a 13-year-old boy whose black mother, Leonie, is a druggie and whose white father, Michael, is in prison.  He lives with his grandparents in coastal Mississippi, along with his toddler sister, Kayla, but his unreliable mother pops in and out.  When Leonie learns that Michael is about to be released, she and her equally messed up friend Misty take the kids to Parchman to pick him up.  We know that this trip is going to be disastrous and just read with our fingers crossed that Jojo and Kayla survive.  There are two things that I did not like about this book.  First and foremost, it is, as you can imagine, immeasurably depressing.  To say that Leonie is a bad mother is an understatement, as she is both neglectful and abusive.  She only has eyes for Michael, and neither has any business being a parent.  The other aspect that did not appeal to me is the magical realism.  Two dead people are visible to some of the characters.  One is Given, Leonie’s brother, who was killed by Michael’s cousin.  Leonie has never recovered from his loss and seems to care more about him than her children, who are very much alive.  The other ghost is Richie, a boy who knew Jojo’s grandfather in prison and wants to get to the heart of what happened there.  I just really did not understand the significance of these ghosts and why they were necessary to the story.  There is some other voodoo (my word, not the author’s) going on, such as lucky talismans and graveyard stones, and I was OK with those, since they seemed to be perhaps indicative of the culture.  The ghosts, though, for me, detracted from the seriousness of the story and lent it an air of mythology that turned me off.   They even have full-on conversations with living characters.  Perhaps I would have been more accepting of silent ghosts.  In any case, I found her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones, to be a much better read.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan

Anna Kerrigan is eleven years old in the 1930s when the novel opens.  She is her father’s favorite companion on work-related errands, including one visit to the Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles.  Then her father suddenly disappears.  The fact that Anna’s mother never contacted the police tells me that she knew that her husband was involved in some shady dealings.   We later learn that he was a small-time bagman and that Dexter Styles is a fairly important underworld figure.    Some ten years later, WWII is underway, and Anna has a mind-numbing job measuring nautical parts.  We are not aware that Anna is the least bit aquatic until she becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming a diver in the Naval Yard.  This choice of a profession seemed particularly odd to me, especially when it becomes supremely helpful in her search for her still-missing father.  For me, this was a rather absurd coincidence.  I love Egan’s writing, though, and my complaints about the plot are relatively few.  There is another point late in the novel where Anna suddenly reverses a decision, and I found the whole scene a little too predictable and unoriginal.  As for the characters, Dexter Styles drew me in more than any other, including Anna.  He is very charismatic in a dangerous sort of way.  Anna, on the other hand, is a little hard to pin down as far as her values, her appearance, and her personality.  She’s strong in every way but not necessarily relatable.  Still, overall, I liked this book, though not as much as I liked A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

LOOK AT ME by Jennifer Egan

Charlotte Swenson is a former model in her late 30s who now has 80 titanium screws in her face due to a horrific car accident.  She struggles to put her life back together but finds that she is no longer in demand as a model.  After sabotaging a couple of weird opportunities, she finds herself in the midst of a Big Brother-type internet venture that may or may not pan out financially.  She is also in contact with a private investigator, Anthony Halliday, who is searching for a mysterious man known as Z, but Charlotte’s connection to Z is revealed one tiny bit at a time.  Meanwhile, a teenage Charlotte (Hauser), daughter of Charlotte Swenson’s best friend in Rockford, Illinois, is struggling with adolescent issues of her own and embarks on an illicit sexual liaison with the new math teacher in town.  The narrative alternates between the two Charlottes, neither of whom is a particularly likable character.  Halliday is the most sympathetic character, I think, but his possible infatuation with Charlotte S. is certainly ill-advised, as she is a head case of the first order.  The saving grace of his novel is the beautiful prose, full of terrific imagery.  Here’s one of my favorite examples:

“A couple approached, the woman large in the way that couches and refrigerators were large, dressed in a loose floral pantsuit that hopped around her like a collection of eager pets.”


The novel is full of this type of stuff that just made me sigh with admiration and envy.  The premise of the story is very good:  the physical appearance of someone who depends on her looks is suddenly radically altered.  The plot isn’t bad, or plots, I should say, although they do eventually merge, but I think the premise and the writing could have produced something a little more meaty.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a Gulag prisoner in Siberia in 1951.  The day in which this book takes place is actually one of his better days, despite the frigid cold, meager gruel, endless body searches, and back-breaking work.  Shukhov has figured out a few tricks to survival, including hiding tools and bread, but what he’d really like is a sick day.  I thought at first that he must be a political prisoner, but actually he was released from a German WWII POW camp and then arrested in his homeland on suspicion of being a German spy.  If this misconception isn’t ludicrous enough, consider the state of the prison camp.  Incomplete buildings and broken machinery abound.  One of the reasons that everything is in disrepair is because the work reports, in which productivity is always exaggerated, are apparently more important than the quality of the work.  The convicts break off a railing to use as firewood, thus giving us another glimpse as to why the camp is in disarray.  Shukhov periodically has to reassess the value of his dignity, as he considers how low he is willing to stoop to survive.  This dysfunctional prison camp is perhaps a microcosm of the USSR in many ways—unable to feed itself with a workforce unmotivated to build an infrastructure.  This novel may be a standout as social commentary, but as literature, it underwhelmed me somewhat.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire

This novel struck me as a cross between Moby Dick and The Revenant.  Patrick Sumner is a surgeon whose dishonorable turn with the English army in India has left him unable to find a job except on a whaling ship.  The crew is a maelstrom of violent and unspeakably distasteful characters, among whom Sumner is by far the brightest.  Harpooner Henry Drax is the epitome of evil combined with physical strength—a deadly sociopathic barbarian at best.  This is mostly Sumner’s story, and you can bet that he and Drax will be at odds.  Plus, the captain of the ship has a corrupt purpose and doesn’t want to be bothered with solving a murder while at sea in the Arctic.  In the hands of a less skilled writer, this would just be a gory, gruesome story of depravity and survival, but it happens to be riveting, especially in the second half.  In a way, it’s even refreshing to read something so purely masculine for a change.  However, if the slaughter of animals bothers you, or if vivid descriptions of blood and guts make you squeamish, this is not the book for you.  Besides the whales, the crew mercilessly butchers seals and bears as well, and not always with a mercenary purpose.  This is not really a mystery; it’s more of a brutal adventure novel with a bit of foreshadowing of things to come.  I also found it to be a fast read, and that was a good thing, because these characters are not men that I particularly wanted to spend a lot of time with, in frigid temperatures or otherwise.