Review 2083: Heads of the Colored People

I read Heads of the Colored People for my James Tait Black project. It is a collection of short stories, many linked by common characters, that explore black identity in the middle class, a hyper-aware Californian middle class.

In “Heads of the Colored People,” what starts out as a somewhat comic clash at Comicon ends up as headlines because of Fighting While Black.

In “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” Randolph, one of the few black professors at an HBUC, learns that the problems he has had with his office mate are probably race-related.

In “Belles Lettres,” two highly educated black mothers duke it out by letter over their two schoolgirls.

In “The Body’s Defense Against Itself,” Fatima, one of the schoolgirls now grown, sees a woman in her yoga class who reminds her of her old arch-enemy. This makes her remember her years of body self-hatred.

In “Fatima the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” Fatima, now a teenager, feels too white, as one of only two black children in her school. She meets Violet, an albino black girl. who offers to teach her how to be black.

And so on.

Some of the stories are funny but usually with a bite, such as “Suicide, Watch,” about a woman so obsessed with social media that she hints at suicide just to see if her numbers go up.

Some of theses stories verge on the bizarre, but I think most people can find something to relate to in them. They are insightful and original.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2058: Crudo

If I had ever heard of Kathy Acker, I might have appreciated Crudo, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more. The novel incorporates her writing and depicts a woman named Kathy who has had a double mastectomy and otherwise seems to echo Acker’s life except that it is set in 2017, some years after her death.

The novel is primarily a character study. Its events, with some reminiscences, are days leading up to her wedding and the month afterwards. She is extremely neurotic and sometimes seems almost paralyzed by world events. She is commitment phobic and yet is getting married, so she obsesses about that. She thinks in very graphic terms and expresses herself crudely at times. She decides to do something and changes her mind. She has screaming fits because the deck was painted brown.

Altogether, she is a difficult and infuriating woman. I didn’t like her at all, which interfered with my enjoyment of the novel.

Laing’s writing is clean and vivid. She appropriates the words of others as did Acker, but her appropriations are noted at the end of the novel.

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Review 2031: Attrib. and Other Stories

I found Attrib. and Other Stories, which I read for my James Tait Black prize project, a little intimidating, as I find reading poetry. That’s because, although I enjoy language, I use and understand it more straightforwardly.

Williams, on the other hand, clearly loves to play with language while also understanding the moments when it fails you. Two of the stories demonstrate this: “Alphabet,” in which a sufferer from aphasia is forgetting her words along with her lover, and “Spins,” where the narrator contemplates her inability to find the right word as her lover stomps out the door.

“Smote,” subtitled “(or when I find I cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)” was a bit much for me in the verbal gymnastics department, but then its ending was so simple. The most straightforward story and the one that affected me most was “Spines,” about a family on vacation that can’t be bothered to remove a drowning hedgehog from the swimming pool.

Williams is playful and imaginative in her writing. Most of the stories (all except “Spines”) are written in the first person and feel very personal.

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If I Gave the Award

Having just reviewed the final shortlisted novel for the 2010 James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Most of the shortlist left me unsatisfied for this year, but it contains two wonderful books.

The novel I found least interesting was Strangers by Anita Brookner. The story of a lonely man and his unsatisfying relationships, I found it slow moving and repetitive, although it was well written.

I have loved some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels and applaud him for seeming to try different things, but I found his collection of short stories about music and fame, Nocturnes, unsatisfying. I also found some of the situations frankly unbelievable.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is probably the most unusual of the entries. It is a boldly illustrated story about a boy genius and his trip to the Smithsonian to accept a fellowship. I found some of the aspects of the story unlikely, but my biggest problem with it was the narrator’s voice. There was no time that the voice sounded like a 12-year-old boy, genius or not.

Cover for Wolf Hall

The winner of the prize that year was The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. I can understand why it won, because it is an ambitious novel that tries to paint a portrait of Victorian society against the microcosm of one family’s experience. It is also completely absorbing, so I think it deserves the award.

However, the other shortlisted book was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a fascinating novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell and one of my favorite novels of all time. I’m not saying that the judges got it wrong this time, but the choice between these two would be difficult for me. I’m guessing The Children’s Book won because of its larger scope.

Review 2009: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old boy who spends most of his time on a Montana ranch mapping things. Not just making geological maps but mapping the everyday activities on the ranch—his sister’s technique of shucking corn, the regularity of his father’s sip of whiskey, as well as numerous scientific subjects. In fact, his mentor, Dr. Yorn, has encouraged him to submit drawings to various journals, and he has had some published.

T. S. does not feel comfortable at home. He is mocked by most of his schoolmates. He feels he is a disappointment to his rancher father, and his scientist mother, whom he calls Dr. Claire, seems to be completely obsessed by the search for a particular beetle. Worse, his oldest brother has recently died.

One day he gets a call from the Smithsonian. It appears that Dr. York submitted one of his diagrams as an entry in a prestigious fellowship and he has won. Dr. Jibsen, unaware of his age, informs him he is expected at the Smithsonian on Thursday to give a speech.

At first T. S. hesitates about accepting the award, but then he decides to go to Washington. He packs up some things and hops a freight train east.

Liberally decorated with T. S.’s drawings and musings, this novel is inventive and sometimes funny. In a way, it is meant as a wild romp with a philosophical dint, so maybe we’re meant to overlook the truly implausible aspects of the story, such as that a recipient of an important award would have someone on the Smithsonian end immediately organizing his flight.

I was drawn along at first and ready to suspend my disbelief, but first, what can your hero do while he spends several days on a freight train getting to Chicago. Nothing, right? If you are expecting a picaresque series of adventures like I was, you’ll be disappointed. But T. S. has brought along one of his mother’s notebooks, which is how he discovers she is writing a novel about one of his father’s ancestors. Larsen inserts the entire contents of the notebook into the middle of the novel, with a few interruptions. At first, it was interesting, but after a while I sighed every time I saw the typographic clue that the novel was restarting.

This is all fairly unimportant, though, against the criticism that T. S.’s voice is never convincing as that of a 12-year-old, genius or not. Yes, he is childish at times, but then his voice is much too young for a 12-year-old. But most of his musings and concerns are those of an adult.

Is the book fun to read? Yes, mostly. But I tired of it after a while.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1885: Travelers

When I first began reading Travelers, I thought I would be disappointed in it, because the bio said Habila had won several awards for his writing, but I found a misplaced modifier in the first few pages. Can’t help it—I’m a grammar nerd. However, I soon found the novel compelling.

It is structured as six novellas, which are linked by the presence or acquaintance with the unnamed narrator. He is a Nigerian student who is supposed to be finishing his dissertation in Washington when his American artist wife receives a fellowship in Berlin. Their marriage has been suffering since she had a miscarriage, and they see the move as an opportunity for a new start, but while his wife works hard, the narrator seems to be aimless, wandering around Berlin and ignoring his work. He becomes interested in a group of activists living in a squat and taking part in demonstrations. Several of them are refugees from Africa, including Mark, a transgender artist.

In this first novella, we meet Manu, who we learn about in the second novella. As Manu’s family crossed the Mediterranean in a derelict boat, the boat sank and he lost track of his wife and baby son. Every Sunday, he and his daughter search the area around Checkpoint Charlie for his wife and son.

In the third story, Portia, a Zambian studying in England, has traveled to Basel to meet Katharina, who used to be married to her brother David. She has gone there to understand her brother better, a man who always seemed to want to leave home, but also, at her mother’s behest, to find out why Katharina killed him.

In the fourth story, after meeting Portia and traveling with her to Basel, the narrator listens to the tale of a Somalian whom he meets on a train. This man and his son have suffered unimaginable hardships trying to find a place for themselves and their family. However, in a moment of confusion, the narrator loses his identity papers and finds himself incarcerated in a refugee camp.

This novel examines the state of many east and west African countries and the plight of African refugees in Europe. Habila is a master at quickly involving readers in the lives of its many often incidentally encountered characters. I read Travelers for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1824: The Big Music

This high-concept novel is admittedly a bit demanding to read. Although it is the story of difficult family relationships, a distinguished heritage, a dying man, it is written to convey a sense of the piobaireachd, the classical form of bagpipe music, a type of music dependent upon repetition and embellishment.

John Callum Sutherland, an old man nearing his death, is trying to complete a piobaireachd called “Lament for Himself.” Because of his fears of his father, a famous piper, John Callum as a young man left behind his long, distinguished family history and vowed never to return. Only once he returned after his father’s death and met Margaret MacKay, the housekeeper, did he realize what he missed by leaving, the music and the great love.

Now, dying and off his meds, John Callum needs a new note for his piobaireachd. He decides he can find it by taking Katherine Anna, Margaret’s infant granddaughter as well as his own, to his small hidden hut where he works on his music. As he goes, he imagines the melodies made by Helen, Margaret’s daughter, when she finds her baby is missing.

Margaret has summoned Callum Innes, John Callum’s son, from the south because she knows John Callum doesn’t have long to live. Callum has never lived in the remote family home in Sutherland. He has only spent his boyhood summers there and has never felt part of it. He too fears his father.

This novel is about a family home, a family legacy, music, and the relationships between fathers and sons. It is at times touching, but it appeals more to the cerebral than to the emotional. Not only is the novel written in the form of the piobaireachd and attempts to convey the music, but it is heavily annotated and makes the novel itself, and the writing of it, the center of the story in the postmodern fashion. Finally, it provides nearly 100 pages of appendixes for those interested in the history of the family, the piobaireachd form, the geography of the area, and many other topics.

I found this novel, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more intellectually interesting than involving. I have to admit to tiring of some of its repetitions, most often of the footnotes in continually referring readers to the appendixes.

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Review 1816: Sight

Hmmm. I find it hard to evaluate Sight because even though it explores very personal thoughts and feelings, it appealed mostly to my intellectual side not my emotion. And I have the greatest response to the latter. Some readers on Goodreads compared Greengrass to Rachel Cusk, and I can understand the comparison.

Sight is concerned with seeing below the surface, both in the obsessions of the main character and in the stories she tells about Roentgen, Freud, and John Hunter, an early anatomist. The unnamed character is at first painfully and neurotically conflicted about having a child, feeling the desire for the child while at the same time fearing the responsibilities of parenthood, but even more so fearing that she will not connect with her child. All the while, she lets us know that in another time she has already had this child and is expecting another one.

We learn that the narrator’s mother, the daughter of a psychiatrist who is an unrelenting self-analyst, had her dreams interrogated so thoroughly as a child that she stopped having them. Thus, her mother attempts to live only on the surface. Greengrass explores how we can know another person, or even ourselves, through the focus of motherhood, daughterhood, and through ruminations about scientific discoveries.

She writes in a lovely, meticulous prose, although she often prefers long, complicated sentences. Like her microscopic observations, though, her style seems distanced from the reader. I read this novel for my James Tait Black prize project.

Outline

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Umbrella

Review 1795: American War

In 2074, Sarat Chestnut is only six when her father is killed by a terrorist bomb while trying to get a permit for his family to move into the north and safety. The Chestnuts live in a United States divided by civil war with its coastlines eroded far back from global warming. As residents of Louisiana, they reside in a purple state, a state that while it belongs to the North (blue states) has many Southern sympathizers (reds).

After Benjamin Chestnut’s death, Martina, Sarat’s mother, is told that the fighting in East Texas is coming nearer and she should retreat to the refugee camp at Camp Patience in Mississippi. As a resident of Camp Patience, Sarat grows up witnessing terrible events and is slowly groomed by Mr. Gaines to be a terrorist.

In between the chapters about Sarat, El Akkad includes documents about the war leading readers to realize that even more horrific events are ahead and, to me at least, telegraphing Sarat’s fate.

Like most good dystopian novels, this one puts our world troubles into perspective and holds a warning for us. Although dystopia is not really my genre, I found this novel riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

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