Review 1845: The Nickel Boys

The Prologue of The Nickel Boys is chilling in and of itself. The novel is based on investigations into the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which turned up evidence of mistreatment, torture, and even murder of young boys.

Set mostly in the early 60s, the novel follows Elwood Curtis, a black boy who has been taught to do what is right and who has been inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. His attitude seems to be working. He is doing well in high school, he has a job with a good boss, and his presence at some demonstrations for equality has earned him an invitation to take college courses.

He is on his way to college for the first night of classes when he accepts a ride from a stranger. Next thing he knows, the car has been pulled over as stolen and he’s been sentenced to the Nickel Academy for Boys.

On his second day, still trying to make sense of things, Elwood steps in to stop some bullying and ends up being beaten senseless by the Director. He spends some time in the infirmary, where the doctor only prescribes aspirin no matter what the problem is.

When he gets out, Elwood is befriended by Turner, who tries to show him how to get by. Turner gets him on Community Service detail, where Elwood observes all the food for the school being sold to restaurants, boys being sent to homes of the board members to do yard work and painting, and other signs of graft and corruption. Elwood writes them all down.

This novel is a searing record of the recent racial history of our country as well as being a story of friendship. It’s a powerful book. It makes me wonder why I haven’t read any Whitehead before.

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Review 1373: The Queen of the Caribbean

I was intrigued enough when I wrote my Classic Author Focus article on Emilio Salgari for The Classics Club that I ordered one of his books. Salgari was an early 20th century adventure novelist whose work inspired other writers and film makers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really do my homework and ended up picking a book with an appealing cover and title. The problem was that it is the second in Salgari’s Black Corsair series. Unlike many old adventure series—I’m thinking of, for example, Tom Swift—The Queen of the Caribbean depends heavily on its predecessor, The Black Corsair, which I had of course never read.

I was a bit taken aback when I opened the book to find a modern map of Southern Mexico and Central America labeled “West Indies, 1600.” The only concession to the 1600’s was a hasty label “New Spain.” Panama, which wasn’t even a country until a couple of years before the book was published in 1905, was delineated. Apparently, Salgari or his publishers (assuming this was a map that appeared in the original publication and not a creation for the republished copy) chose to use modern place names, some of them even in English.

Other than that, Salgari appears to have some knowledge of pirates, sea-going, and the flora and fauna of Mexico and Florida. Unfortunately, he sometimes stops the action dead in its tracks to tell us about some plant or animal. In a way, this book reminds me of those of W. H. G. Kingston, which I had a small collection of that never reappeared after our move. However, Kingston was better at working his facts into the story.

The Black Corsair is pursuing his enemy, Van Guld, who betrayed his followers in battle. Later, after the Black Corsair and his brothers turned pirate in pursuit of their enemy, Van Guld was responsible for the deaths of the corsair’s brothers. All this apparently happened in the first book. In The Queen of the Caribbean, this pursuit leads them to attack Vera Cruz, an event that actually happened. During the search in Vera Cruz for Van Guld, the Black Corsair hears rumors that his lady love, who he thought was dead, may be alive.

Although the Black Corsair behaves nobly, he doesn’t seem at all disturbed by the mayhem wrought upon innocent people by his pirate friends. Perhaps Salgari was attempting to portray pirates more realistically than is usual in adventure fiction. He seems, however, to have an admiration for what are essentially bloodthirsty cutthroats. I don’t think I’m applying my 21st century standards here, because I’ve managed to enjoy many other adventure novels, including ones about pirates. The characters in this one are cardboard figures being put through their paces.

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Day 1231: The Tiger Rising

Last year I gave my ten-year-old niece three books by Kate Di Camillo, and her face lit right up. This year, I got her The Tiger Rises and read it to see what was so great about Di Camillo.

Rob is an unhappy 12-year-old, used to being bullied on the bus and not allowed by his father to mention his dead mother. One day when he is exploring the woods near the motel where he lives, he finds a tiger in a cage.

The next day, he meets Sistine, a new girl in school. Sistine is angry since the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Rob takes her to see the tiger, and she immediately decides they should let it loose.

I am sure there are elements in this novel that would interest children, but it doesn’t have much to offer adults. It provides a shocking but unconvincingly easy solution to the characters’ problems. And really, what kind of a good solution is going to come from a tiger in a cage?

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Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.

Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.

As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.

I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.

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Day 780: A Place We Knew Well

Cover for A Place We Knew WellI was a kid during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I don’t remember it as having much effect on our lives. I do remember the ridiculous duck-and-cover exercises and the display of model fall-out shelters, but I only remember one family that had one. I grew up in Michigan, not Florida, though, where things were apparently different.

Wes Avery realizes that something is up early on Friday, October 19, 1962. He is a former air force gunner, who took part in bombing raids over Japan during World War II. When the nearby McCoy Air Force Base begins a build-up, he notices right away.

The rest of his family is absorbed in other activities so at first doesn’t notice his concern. His wife Sarah is depressed and traumatized over a hysterectomy that was performed on her without her consent a couple of years before, after a miscarriage (sadly, all too common at that time). Her doctor is treating her with far too many pills. Charlotte, their daughter, has been picked for the Homecoming court. She is worried that she will be the only girl without a date until Wes’s employee and best friend Steve suggests that another employee, Emilio, a Cuban refugee from a good family, take her.

Emilio and Charlotte are happy about this solution, but Sarah tries to talk Charlotte into waiting, knowing that other boys whom Sarah considers more suitable will ask her. Wes has to field arguments from Sarah, who obviously thinks he tries too much to please everyone. Added to all this tension, as everyone’s awareness of the situation with Cuba grows, is a family member’s reappearance, which makes West feel disloyal to Sarah.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is effective at building tension and sympathy for Wes in the situation in which he finds himself. Despite what has happened to Sarah, it is not as good at evoking sympathy for her. Although her preoccupations turn out to have a deeper basis, if only in her own mind, they seem trivial compared to the possible immanence of war and the difficulties Wes finds himself in. I think we should feel more deeply for Sarah, but for some reason, we don’t, perhaps because her concern over Charlotte’s first date and her apparent snobbery seems so ridiculous. (Of course, there is a reason for that.)

However, overall I think this novel does a great job of evoking time and place. I think the closing chapter, a letter written in present time, is a little too didactic, though, and serves as an anticlimax even though we want to know what happened to the characters.

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Day 636: Their Eyes Were Watching God

their-eyes-were-watching-godTheir Eyes Were Watching God was my selection for Classics Spin #8 for the Classics Club! Here is my review.

I had a complex reaction to this novel. On the one hand, I liked its protagonist, Janey Crawford, and was interested in her struggle to define her own identity. On the other hand, I didn’t much like any other characters in the novel. On the one hand, Janey’s struggles to define herself make the novel a landmark feminist book; on the other hand, Janey defines herself through her choice of husbands and her relationships to them. On the one hand, I don’t usually like tales in the vernacular; on the other hand, both the educated omniscient narrator and Janey’s vernacular third/first-person narration have moments of entrancing imagery. And speaking of that imagery, for a book written in 1937, the novel is occasionally startling in its sexuality.

A woman in her 40’s, Janey has recently returned home without Tea Cake, the man she left with. Having departed in some scandal, a well-off widow with a much younger, penniless man, she is figuring in a lot of talk. So, when her friend Phoeby comes to see her, Janey decides to tell her the story of her life.

Janey was raised by her grandmother in West Florida after her mother had her as a result of rape and then disappeared. Janey is a light-skinned black woman with long beautiful hair, and her appearance features in much of her story. When she is still an extremely innocent 16-year-old, her grandmother marries her off to a much older man, trying to give her stability. Janey thinks that marrying will make them love each other, but she is soon disillusioned and finds he is inclined to treat her like a work horse.

Then she meets Joe Starks, a flashy well-dressed man who seems to be going somewhere, and is. She leaves with him and they settle in an all-black town in “the new part of Florida,” where Joe soon becomes the mayor and store owner. But he defines his marriage by what he gives her and expects her to maintain a certain decorum as his wife, not allowing her to participate in many of the small town amusements. Also, he treats her with disrespect, publicly ridiculing her.

After Joe dies, under circumstances that have already started talk, Janey meets Tea Cup and eventually leaves with him to work in the Everglades. Although Tea Cup is in some ways an improvement over her other two husbands, there are some events that disturbed me. First, he steals her $200 and comes back with $12, but she is only upset when she thinks he has left her. Next, he earns it back but makes her put it in the bank and promise to live off what he can provide, a classic play for dominance that ignores the fact that she soon has to go to work next to him, manually in the fields. Finally, he beats her up once, not because of anything she does but because he wants to show everyone that she belongs to him.

Hurston was a trained ethnographer, and her fiction details a way of life in small-town Florida of her time. I found many of the details interesting. A fascination with skin color and Caucasian features is one theme that comes up several times. In fact, when Tea Cake beats Janey, instead of provoking a discussion of the fairness of the beating, the people are more fascinated by Janey’s skin being fair enough that they can see the bruises, which makes the other men envious.

Janey is often viewed harshly and unfairly by others. But it is part of her growing self-awareness that she doesn’t care. Although to me she sometimes seems too passive in her relationship to men—her gentle response to Tea Cake’s beating is seen as a good thing—she is otherwise a strong and resourceful heroine.

Day 481: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Cover for St. Lucy'sDifficulties of youth and adolescence are the themes of Karen Russell’s unusual collection of short stories. Many of them are set in the Florida Everglades among bizarre and tacky theme parks or tourist destinations, where children sled through the sand on crab shells or visit enormous conches.

The first story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” provides an introduction to the two sisters who are more fully developed in Russell’s later novel Swamplandia! Abandoned momentarily at their Everglades theme park home, Ava has a murky encounter with the Bird Man and tries to rescue her sister Osceola from her ghost lover. That story is expanded in the novel, which I really enjoyed.

Although certainly all are unusual, some of the stories are more bizarre than others. In “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” a 19th century family makes a difficult crossing west, their wagon pulled by their father, the Minotaur. In the title story, human children of werewolves are sent away to be raised by nuns so that they can have a better life than their parents.

Russell’s stories are at once peculiar and oddly touching, full of young misfits who are even more out of place than all adolescents think they are. At times funny, such as the descriptions of the wolf-girls’ canine behavior when trying to adjust to their new school, the stories all reverberate with longing. Russell’s writing is brilliantly fierce and original, sparked by her own peculiar vision.

A few of the stories felt to me as if the author was just trying to think of the strangest ideas possible, and she almost lost me in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” But ultimately, I enjoyed the stories, although I prefer the more developed characters and plot of Swamplandia!

Day 404: Swamplandia!

Cover for SwamplandiaBest Book of the Week!

Swamplandia! is the third book I’ve read in the past few months that has a strong young female voice (with Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Where’d You Go, Bernadette). All of them were very good.

Before I start, though, a comment on the cover for the hardcover copy of the book, which is not the one I read or the one shown here. I was not really clear about whether this book is considered appropriate for young adults or not (probably), but the hardcopy cover makes Swamplandia! look like a children’s book, showing a very young girl piggyback on a character who looks somewhat like the Mad Hatter, both watching an alligator. Let me warn you that Swamplandia! is definitely not for young children.

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree and her family live on an island in a hokey-sounding amusement park in the Florida Everglades called Swamplandia! There, they dress up as Native Americans (their grandfather, who founded the park, was a German-American farmer from Ohio) and breed and wrestle alligators. Ava’s mother Hilola was the main attraction until she became ill with cancer and eventually died.

Since then the family has tried to cope with its grief while also attempting to save the floundering park. Homeschooled and with little contact with the mainland, the Bigtree kids have been raised in a sort of dream land. They all possess a thorough and subversive knowledge of the history of Florida and of its flora and fauna but not many skills for dealing with the outside world. Kiwi spends almost all his time reading, Osceola believes she has a ghost lover, and Ava is aiming to become a world-famous alligator wrestler.

When tourists stop arriving on the ferry, Chief Bigtree, the children’s father, makes one of his mainland journeys to raise money to save the park, but not before Kiwi apparently abandons them to get a job with the park’s competitor, The World of Darkness. Sixteen-year-old Osceola and Ava are left alone on the island until Osceola floats away on an old barge to join her lover.

Frantic to save Osceola, young Ava joins up with a mysterious man named the Bird Man, who claims to know his way into hell, which is where Ava assumes she must go to bring Osceola back from her ghost lover. As our apprehension grows, we follow Ava’s journey while periodically cutting over to observe Kiwi’s serio-comic adventures at the hell-themed World of Darkness.

Russell creates a lush world in Swamplandia! and a compelling narrator in the innocent/wise Ava. The language of the novel is gorgeous, its heroine engaging. You will find yourself immersed in a damp world bursting with life, and you won’t want to leave it until you know what happens to Ava.