The back story of how this novel came to be published is fascinating: originally written and edited in 1941, it was never published and was essentially lost in the archives until a graduate student at Columbia University found a copy of an essentially ﬁnished manuscript among the papers of another writer in 2009. The New York Times reported on this discovery and the process to authenticate the manuscript in 2012. Now ﬁnally the book has made it into print.
Amiable with Big Teeth captures a later point in Harlem’s Renaissance, at the time when Ethiopia was invaded by Italian fascists. It’s a satirical look at the political maneuverings of activist groups and diﬀering perspectives of race and class relations,...more
The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name.
I did not witness the most important events of my life. My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground. From the corner of a small house on a small island that juts like a bone from the skin of the sea.
While I was reading...more
A disgraced college professor moves to San Francisco in the late summer of 1974 while his school investigates him for an inappropriate relationship with a student. Hoping to work on a series lectures during his exile, he rents the cheapest oﬃce he can ﬁnd and describes a dreary building with “begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time.” In the marble lobby, the elevators are overseen by bronze cherubs whose eyes circle to watch the cars rising and falling. The ﬂoors are inhabited by an array of tenants behind frosted glass doors, and he settles in to begin working. After a couple weeks, he arrives to ﬁnd a new whirring noise and discovers he rented the...more
Stretching across the 1940s, 1960s, and 1990s, Southland encompasses an impressive breadth of cultural history without overreaching. After the death of Jackie Ishida’s grandfather in 1994, her aunt ﬁnds a box of old papers that cracks open a door to long-hidden family secrets and tasks Jackie with sorting them out. Almost immediately, her quest brings her to Jimmy Lanier who reveals that during the Watts riots in 1965, four black boys were murdered in her grandfather’s store — an event her grandparents never revealed to their adolescent children.
One of the boys was Jimmy’s older cousin Curtis, who he adored unreservedly, and the suppression of the crime was particularly tough for him to accept. Together Jackie and Jimmy work to uncover...more
While technically ﬁction, this novel is almost entirely a conversation between a man and the gorilla Ishmael (who communicates telepathically), and it pretty much reads like a lecture on philosophies of ecology. The ideas are interesting, focused on Ishmael’s division of humans into two groups he calls Takers and Leavers — the Takers being those who followed the Agricultural Revolution through the Industrial Revolution to today’s world of possibly irreversible climate change.
Many critics of this book see Ishmael’s gloriﬁcation of the Leavers, represented by more primitive, tribal cultures, as unrealistic and even inaccurate. The argument, for example, that they have always lived in balance with their environment, never depleting resources unlike their Taker counterparts, turns out to be easily refuted....more
After the sudden death of a wife and mother, a father and two sons struggle in their mourning. To their rescue comes an oversized Crow, apparently a manifestation of Ted Hughes’s poetic creation, acting as a kind of counselor. (The dad is a Hughes scholar; the author Max Porter is a casual scholar himself.) The book rotates between the voices of the Dad, Crow, and Boys, the Crow parts often devolving into cryptic crow word play. The title is also a play on poetry, swapping Emily Dickinson’s hope for grief. (If there’s a meaningful connection between Emily Dickinson and Ted Hughes, I seem to have missed it.)
As a portrait of the anguish of loss, Porter captures the all-consuming nature...more
I watched my brother watch the world, his sharp, too-serious brow furrowing down in both angst and wonder. Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.
Beautiful, poetic novel built around memories of growing up in Bushwick in the 1970s. August returns to NYC as an adult, and a chance meeting on the subway brings back her adolescent years when she ﬁrst arrived with her father and brother from Tennessee. “This is memory,” she intones repeatedly as she remembers their father being too nervous to let them out on their own, so they viewed their neighborhood held captive through the...more
While Colson Whitehead’s novel is a ﬁctional account of slavery that bends historical details, the cruelties and heartbreak are undeniably accurate. Cora is the center of the story, a woman who is an outcast in her plantation life, her mother having left her behind to escape North. Her own chance to take oﬀ comes in the form of Caesar, who sees her as a good luck charm because of her mother’s successful escape, and together they ﬂee, managing to make it a station of the Underground Railroad.
Whitehead imagines the railroad as tracks literally tunneling through the earth, complete with subterranean locomotives and boxcars. Each train journey serves to jump the narrative in some way — further in time but also...more
Set during WWII in Germany, The Book Thief starts by following Liesel Meminger traveling with her mother and brother traveling by train to Munich. Her mother is a communist and has found a foster home for them to protection as political tensions rise under the Nazis. Along the way her brother dies, and Liesel crosses paths for the ﬁrst time with the novel’s narrator, Death. At her brother’s funeral, she also steals her ﬁrst book: a manual on grave digging, which she is unable to read. The use of Death as a near-omniscient narrator has the potential to come oﬀ as contrived, but this empathetic version of Death sets a softened tone for the various horrors to come. And...more
Passable, Not Presentable...more
She remembered the time before she had gotten sick. When it was a challenge to dress, how good it felt to look just right and be certain of one’s appearance. Then came losing her looks in the hospital, and the ghastly diﬀerence it made in the way she was received; the way people turned away from her after one glance in the street. And the slow climb back, trying to disguise the stiﬀness in her gait, and the drooling moronic look on her face that came from the medication. Perhaps this was why the mentally disabled always seemed so bland-looking as a group: they had to strive to look orginary, the “pass.” That little bit of