2020 Reading — July

The Magpie’s Return by Curtis Smith

The Magpie’s Return by Curtis Smith is coming out in August, but I got an advance copy and I did a review that I hope will appear before the book’s publication. The book is told from the point of view of Kayla, a young genius. She and her intellectual parents move into a new house next to a man who is an ardent supporter of a rising nationalist demagogue, who then is elected president. On New Years’ Day, nuclear war breaks out in Asia that results in a “Shut-in” in America (not dissimilar to our COVID-19 Lock-down), which is followed by a further breakdown in society, a purge against intellectuals and members of the Movement who oppose the nationalists. Kayla’s father is part of the Movement, perhaps a leader, and it’s not giving away too much of the story to reveal that at the end of Part I, a quarter of the way into the book, a mob storms the family home and the father is hanged from a light pole in a horrific scene. The rest of the book is about what happens to Kayla when she flees for her own safety. The book brings to mind some other recent reads, including Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which isn’t as speculative as Smith’s book, but does focus on the unfair suffering of a teenager. Ultimately, what’s frightening about the book—speculative or otherwise—is that the breakdown in society doesn’t seem so farfetched given our current political environment.

Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda

Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda is a collection of short stories linked by location, but covering many, many years. In fact, the first story begins in pre-history with the Clovis people, some of the first occupants of the central plains in North America, more than 10,000 years ago, and the last is set in the future, after the territory has been turned into a wasteland, literally, and all the plants, birds, and insects have disappeared. In between are stories about a family of ranchers who exploit the land while fighting others who would ruin it by burying hazardous waste. One fascinating story is about a young man who is exempt from the WWII draft because he cares for his sickly mother but works in a bomb factory where his specific job is burying the supposed duds. Riveting. The whole of the collection is beautifully written and deserves more attention. (We read each other’s books and held a “conversation” that will appear in a literary magazine soon.)

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee is a dystopian novel that begins in B-mor, which is what Baltimore has become. It isn’t clear what has happened to bring so many people from New China to settle here, or why the world seems to be divided into Charter Villages, where the upper class live, the Facilities (such as B-mor) where the working class lives and produces food and manufactured goods, and the Counties, where the outcasts and outlaws seem to live. The narrative is in the third person plural from the point of view of B-mor residents and follows the story of Fan, a young woman who leaves B-mor in search of Reg, her boyfriend and father of her unborn child, who has been removed from B-mor. We learn gradually why he has been removed, but the process of Fan’s search is thrilling, taking her into the Counties where she encounters various dangers and then into a Charter Village, which has its own risks. The diction of the narrative voice is fantastic—elevated and wise—and Fan’s quest is suspenseful and compelling. Don’t stop reading before the end!

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King is a terrific kind of memoir. The first part is the memoir section, telling us how he came to be a writer. The second part is his craft advice. The memoir section is most interesting, detailing how he began writing very early. Raised by a single mother, he worked at various jobs while in college, but started sending out stories even then. He taught school for a while right out of college, and as a young married man with children, life was tough. But then he sold his first novel and really hit it big when the paperback rights were sold. The second part is less interesting to me. His craft advice is mostly familiar, but he’s too critical of workshops and residencies, and I think maybe he doesn’t recognize how the world has changed since he started out. (And, of course, the world has changed more since this book was published in 2000.) There are some postscripts also, the most important of which is the one dealing with the accident that nearly killed him and his long road back. The book is worth reading, but there are other books on the writing craft that I think are better.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin is about a black lawyer in the near future who is married to a white woman. Their son, Nigel, has a number of birthmarks, including on his face, that reveal his black coloring. The father, though, applies skin-lightening cream to the marks and hopes to purchase a procedure to make Nigel appear white, saving him from all the attendant racism and racial-profiling that still exists in society. That is also why he is estranged from his own father, Sir, who was jailed for life on attempted murder charges after trying to stop police brutality. When tragedy strikes the family, the main character struggles to recover his balance, shake a drug addiction, and protect his son. It’s a timely discussion of our American race problem.

The World is Round by Nickky Finney

The World is Round by Nikky Finney is a wonderful collection of poems that Northwestern University Press republished when her collection Head Off and Split won the National Book Award. It’s a stunning collection with some heavy issue poems as well as some more personal lyrics. I used “Shark Bite” in a class I was teaching as an example of a poem that was fierce and agenda driven. It’s a hard poem to read because of the horrific story it tells. Then there’s “Hurricane Beulah,” a lovely poem about the poet’s grandmother and, among other things, taking her shopping at the Salvation Army store. I like to begin my writing day with poetry, and this one made for a good July.

The Sweet Indifference of the World by Peter Stamm

The Sweet Indifference of the World by Peter Stamm is an odd little book that I need to give further thought. The cover should have been a clue that it was going to be different, as the title is a mirror image. A novelist—one old novel to his name—remembers his love, Magdalena. He then spots a younger woman who looks like her, whose name, it turns out, is Lena, short for Magdalena. He begins to tell her about Magdalena and it develops that Lena and her boyfriend, whose name is a short form of the novelists, are living a life that is almost but not quite the same as the novelist and his love. The notion of the multiverse is in vogue these days, so that’s what I thought of at first, with these different people being slight variations of each other. When I finished the book, I went back to the beginning and saw that I had missed in the first chapter a clue to what was going to happen in the book, but I’m still not sure what it was all about. At one point, the main character, the novelist, rewrites the book he originally wrote, which, of course, is about his relationship with Magdalena. And perhaps that is the point: we keep rewriting the stories of our lives.

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