Another big reading month, because what else is there to do, including a couple of big books.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is a long book! Nothing brief about it. And, because of the Jamaican patois, it’s a challenge. I’m listening to the audiobook but also referring to my print copy, and I’m glad I have both. It’s possibly the most violent book I’ve ever read, but the title should have been the first clue to that. (The title, BTW, is a reference not to the number of killings shown in the book but to a series in the New Yorker written by one of the characters about the Jamaican gangs.) Anyway, at first, the book seems to be about the struggles of the Jamaican people, mostly poor, and the political instability that might be the result of CIA attempts to prevent a Communist government like nearby Cuba’s. A portion of the story is devoted to the attempted killing of Bob Marley, for reasons that I never fully grasp, although it also seems to be political. But then it becomes mostly about the drug trade, especially when the action of the book shifts from Kingston to Miami and New York. From a craft point of view, the book is interesting because of the voices of many characters, including some of the really bad guys. In this, the audio helped a lot to keep them more or less straight. The most enjoyable character to read was the one woman in the book who has witnessed the shooting of Marley, fears reprisals, and so reinvents herself several times. I’m glad to have read it.
Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah is a translation from Korean. The novel centers on a former actress, Ayami (which is a Japanese name) who works at an “audio theater” that plays the audio of recordings of plays for an audience of high school students and blind people. The theater is operated by a mysterious foundation. Ayami doesn’t know who her parents were and her adoptive parents are dead. She is being stalked by Buha, who may or may not be her former husband. A poet comes to town from somewhere, Europe maybe, and Ayami is sent by Yeoni, her German teacher, to meet him at the airport. Yeoni and Ayami have been reading The Blind Owl together in a German translation of a famous Persian book. I’m hopeful that reading that book will give me some understanding of what Bae is doing in this book. For example, there are several descriptive passages that are repeated throughout the book, and apparently this is a technique borrowed from the Persian novel. We’ll see.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat is the Persian book that the characters in Untold Night and Day are reading, so I read it too. It tells the story of a man, an opium user, who is enchanted by a mysterious woman with searing eyes. He sees her and then can’t find her again, but one day she comes to him, enters his house, and dies. He doesn’t know what to do, so he cuts up her body and stuffs it into a suitcase. Then a hearse driver appears and takes him to a cemetery where he puts the suitcase in a grave. The hearse driver gives him an ancient jar with a picture on it. When the man gets home, he realizes the picture is that of the woman and is exactly the same as a picture of her he himself has painted. He then is moved to write, and what he writes takes up the second half of the book, a story about a man, an opium user, married to a horrible woman whom he eventually kills. It’s highly abstract, but the book benefits from an introduction by Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian American writer I happen to know.
Waltzing with Horses by Felicia Mitchell is a poetry collection published by Press 53 that I picked up a few years ago and have only just now gotten around to reading. It’s a terrific collection that I enjoyed making my slow way through, a poem or two a day usually. Many of the poems are personal and confessional, and a good number of them are about the poet’s mother, moving ever closer to death through the pages until, in the collection’s last poem, “After the memorial service/ we buried a salamander instead.” In another poem, a keen observation: “In the museum she has made of her living room/ photographs of my mother’s life are stacked and pinned/ as if looking at them will take the place of memory.”
Apeirogon by Colum McCann is a complex novel told in 1001 segments (because One Thousand and One Nights is a recurring theme) telling the story of Rami and Bassam, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who both have lost daughters to the ongoing conflict. Rami’s daughter, at 14, was at a café when a suicide bomber detonated. Bassam’s daughter, at ten, was struck in the back of her head by an Israeli soldier’s rubber bullet. Rami’s and Bassam’s experiences are non-fiction and form the core of the novel, which also includes numerous other characters as well as the controlling metaphor of flight and the migration of birds. Essentially, though, it’s about the inhumanity of the occupation, something that might resonate with an Irish writer like McCann. Interestingly, some images from previous books by McCann appear here, such as the tunnel diggers (This Side of Brightness), the tightrope feats of Philippe Petit (Let the Great World Spin), George Mitchell’s negotiations of the Peace Accord (Transatlantic). There’s no real plot to speak of, and it’s impossible for most readers to know where the non-fiction ends and the fiction begins, as the narrative is tied closely to real people and events. The structure, I suppose, also attempts to create a kind of literary apeirogon, a shape with countably infinite sides, almost approximating a circle. This is not my favorite of McCann’s books, but it certainly is powerful.
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is annoying. Haidt claims to be, or have been, a liberal, but this book gives conservatives far too much credit for having a belief system based on all six of his pillars of morality, whereas liberals primarily rely on just two. It isn’t clear that the pillars are accurate or that they’re even equal, and some of his attributions seem arbitrary. It seems to me that liberals and conservatives both exhibit loyalty, but in different ways and to different groups. And there is a long discussion about how wonderful religion is at binding groups together for mutual benefit, but not a word about how the gods of these religions are pure inventions. How moral can a system based on a lie truly be? He lost me early on in the book when he dismisses rationalists, because that would describe my own system of morals.
Conversations With US: American Southwest by Chris Register is sort of a Studs Terkel-esque (in Working, for example) book of interviews with “real” people encountered by the author during a bicycle tour of the Southwest. It follows the first volume in his series, in which he biked through the Great Lakes region. Register’s premise, which is hard to argue with, is that the country is divided because we don’t talk to each other and we don’t listen. What’s fun about the book is that in addition to the interviews he conducts, he also shares the trials and tribulations of the actual biking—repairing his bicycle, encountering wildlife, camping, bad roads, etc. I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Register about his project, which you can read about here. While I appreciate the goal of fostering communication, it feels like it’s a one-way conversation, at least here. In any case, I really enjoyed reading about the journey, his encounters along the way, and his many flat tires (!).
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead isn’t as fanciful or as complex as his previous book, The Underground Railroad, but it’s a good story, beautifully told. Elwood is a smart black teenager who gets an opportunity to take college classes but has to hitchhike to school. He is picked up by a guy who has stolen the car he’s driving, which gets Elwood sent to Nickel, a reform school, when the guy gets pulled over. Nickel is abusive to the boys, especially the black boys, and the horrors are revealed ultimately when a team of archaeologists excavate the grounds and discover lots of bodies. Elwood, in the present, is a success story in New York City, but he can never escape his past. Now, he prepares to return to Nickel to reveal the truth about his time there. Whitehead is a terrific writer.
Weather by Jenny Offill is a short novel in fragments, in the style of her last book, Dept. of Speculation. Although I love the voice here, as I did in the previous book, I also have a similar complaint that not much happens. In this book, the main character is Lizzie, a woman who works in a library, but without a library degree. She also works as an assistant to a psychologist/scientist who answers questions people submit for her podcast about Climate Change. The book, then, deals with questions of the doom we’re all facing (cheery!). At the same time, Lizzie is coping with her brother, Henry, who is a recovering addict with relationship problems, and her mother. But she has a stable marriage to Ben and a charming (if possible autistic) son, Eli, so Lizzie’s life doesn’t seem so bad to me, and possibly not worthy material for a novel? At the end of the book is a url to a site Offill has created that I recommend you check out: obligatorynoteofhope.com