Tag Archives: fiction

A Native American Novel

Yearly, my county library chooses a book for “Everybody Reads” month in February and schedules multiple related events, including an evening with the author as speaker. This year’s selection was unusually good.

There ThereThere There by Tommy Orange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel tells of several Urban Indians whose lives converge in a pow wow in Oakland, CA. A thoroughly modern story, yet roots of the past appear in the Prologue. I was especially intrigued by the section, “Urbanity.” Instead of showing separation between city and rural, reservation life, the section presents unity: “An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. . . . The process that brings anything to its current form–chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise–doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth” (11).

At first each chapter felt like a random vignette. Gradually an overlap of detail became apparent. The pace continued to quicken till it was a page turner at the end.

The meaning of “there” changed throughout, for me culminating at the end, emphasizing the identity formation that was a struggle for some of the characters.

This novel is told from multiple perspectives. While each adds information, many show the same scene from a different perspective, a much more satisfying use of the technique. The number of characters with issues avoided becoming a soap opera. I have yet to put my finger on the source of this success, but success it was. Problems did not dominate, though they were present. There were also vivid moments of strength.

Getting to “know” so many characters, with rather short vignettes, left me amazed at how well I felt I knew them. The idea of being a person behind masks is made explicit in the tales of Tony Loneman; however, it is stated in the Javier Martas quotation in the headnote to Part I: “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it”(13). I’m left feeling I should reread to see how it applies to others.

The ending, so often a problem, is here quite successful. It is motivated by all that has gone before; it is believable; it is satisfyingly ambiguous with hints of the future.

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A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water DancerThe Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not your ordinary underground railroad story. Myth and magical realism combine to trade one set of dangers for another. It is more a story of the main character, Hiram Walker’s development. And of relationships.

The novel is narrated by the older Hiram (frequently addressed as Hi)¬† looking back on his youth. Reflections on youthful decisions increase as the novel progresses. Hi’s growth is motivated and believable. The pace of narration is steady with mostly moderate ups and downs (a few more dramatic).

The life of slavery is neither romanticized nor told in harrowing detail. Because Hi is a house slave, we do not see the hard labor. Brutality is referenced more than it is shown. Although more attention is given to positive experiences of caring for one another and community, there are constant reminders that even so, the Tasked, as slaves are called, are not free.

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A Novel

The Dark Flood RisesThe Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with so many good novels, the first read is but an introduction. Many more encounters will be needed before getting to know it.

There are so many characters that at first I didn’t think there was a main character (in spite of book jacket naming Fran). But as the novel progressed, I realized Fran was central. However, she is not the sort of person I like–so needing to be needed. Still, one does not have to like a character to be intrigued by their thoughts and encounters.

All the characters–or at least almost all–have some connection to aging or death. Fran is in her 70s as are Jo and Teresa, friends from her youth. Jo had a friend, Owen; Owen has a friend, Bennett. Christopher, Fran’s son, has lost his girlfriend to a sudden illness; Christopher goes to the Canary Islands to visit Bennett and Ivor. Each character has several vignettes. As I read, I began to think that if a person were named, they would eventually have a vignette. Almost true, but not quite.

So with all these old folks, we get a variety of attitudes toward aging. Yet none of the characters exist merely to be illustrations. They are developed proportionately to their space in the novel. For now I’m thinking Fran, Christopher, Jo, and Teresa as main characters, and the rest as subordinate. I may add Owen to the main list. Not sure.

Action is not a part of this novel. Everyone plods along, thinking thoughts, having conversations. Drama is minimized (having to abandon a car because of flooded roads; an evening with a daughter that could have been emotional is pretty flat).

The narration is 99% omniscient author; however, at least twice she says something like, we can’t know what happened then, or we can’t know what he thought about this. An interesting break in the pattern–in breaking expectations makes us aware of expectations and conventions.

The novel felt finished; I almost missed the “Envoi.” I don’t think it was needed.

Besides aging, two other social issues are present. Sara, the girlfriend who died young, was doing a documentary on refugees; Poppet, Fran’s daughter, is researching climate change issues. As readers we are aware of these issues, but not in a heavy handed way.

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So Good I Finished the Book in Two Days

Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m glad I had lots of free time these last couple of days as it was hard to put the book down!

The novel includes three timelines. First is the “present,” the time Nan and Flora are adults caring for their aging father. Second and third are included in Ingrid’s letters, letters placed in books rather than sent, hence never read by any of the other characters, only by us readers. Her letters include her history of her relationship with Gil in the 70s and reveal a woman trapped in marriage and motherhood, a woman who wants more. They also contain bits from the 90s, contemporary with her writing them. The three together provide in depth character development as the complexity of the relationships are explored.

Gil is a writing teacher, so it is natural for him to talk about literary theory. He proposes it in extreme form: readers make the fiction, not writers, as they fill in the gaps. (He doesn’t get tediously theoretical at all.) This idea is expanded to art as Flora sketches, one time explicitly commenting that she likes making as few lines as possible and letting the viewer fill in the rest. This bit of theory invites the reader to be an active participant.

One particularly interesting episode early on is told in two versions. Ingrid makes a paper daffodil and places it in Gil’s bicycle (before either know the bikes belong to the other); Gil shows it to the creative writing class¬† (in which Ingrid is a student) to illustrate a secret: he had stolen the flower from beside a sleeping child’s bed in a hospital on his way to visit his dying mother so he would have a flower to present to her. Thus, early on, one wonders whether this reveals his character or merely illustrates the creation of fiction.

The first sentence plunges us into plot: Gil sees his dead wife outside his shop window. The plot continues to develop the ambiguity of her disappearance. Gil and Flora maintain the balance of hope and loss; Nan, the practical, resolves it as loss. We the readers keep wondering and reading in the hopes of finding out.

The ending fits the characters and previous action. The ending has hints of futures for the characters, but doesn’t tell too much. There is room for readers to create, but that creation is constrained by what has been revealed of the characters throughout the novel.

All in all, a good read. I’m eager to read other of Fuller’s works.

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Back to the Books

An American MarriageAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this book all the way through.

I love the guts of the title; in today’s society where white is considered normal and universal, to name a novel about black characters An American Novel shows confidence. The title is apt in another unfortunate way. The novel is about what a black man being in prison does to a marriage, a distinctly American problem with our justice system rigged against black men. But the novel never gets preachy about it.

Alternating sections by each of the three characters in a love triangle accomplishes two things. First, it allows us into the motives and feelings of each, such that I really cared about each and wanted the best for them. I could see why each man “deserved” the woman and why she might just take neither. Secondly, it controlled the pace of the novel in a delightful way, dangling the final decision until almost the final word–every option taking its turn to seem the probable one, every option seeming possible if not acceptable. For once the real ending was appropriate and fulfilling.

(view spoiler)

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A Novel

Well the plan was to move to lighter reading; however, “novel” doesn’t always imply lighter, especially in dystopian fiction about a second civil war.

American WarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In spite of the title, the war serves only as backdrop to the story of the Chestnut family and especially to one of the fraternal twins, Sarat. This is announced in the novel’s prologue: “This isn’t a story about war. It is a story about ruin”(7). One reads to find the multitude of ruins.

The same prologue tells some of the end in a broad way. This is a narrative structure I find appealing, leading me to read more for how something happens than what happens. Meanwhile, there are plenty of intermediate steps where the relevant question is, What happens next? Another similar device is interspersing “quotations” from various news items, trial notes, and memoirs between chapters. There is a good balance of the two strategies.

I found the pacing of the novel amazing. It starts with six-year-old Sarat playing with honey on the wooden floor and quickly introduces the war background, the bureaucracy, climate disasters, and the family’s poverty. The family faces increasing tension in this setting, but also normal childhood adventure is interspersed. Sections of the novel are 5 years apart, allowing for condensation. Then comes an abrupt shift from living in wartime to participating in war. And imprisonment with torture. (This is not a spoiler: the torture is foreshadowed in the prologue.) The point of view changes from first person of the prologue to third person for the first 2/3 of the novel; the last third returns to first person, but it is not clear whether it is the same narrator. The first person portions provide immediacy and reflection as it is an older narrator reflecting back on events.

There is a map of the US in 2075 that shows a portion under Mexican rule. Although I would love to know how and why, it isn’t told. Nor is it necessary to the novel. Necessary changes are told: portions of land under water, the quarantine of South Carolina because the north had dropped a virus so deadly that the whole state had to be walled off. This walling off of disease is one of several points where it was a stretch to suspend disbelief. Another was that only four states would resist giving up use of fossil fuel and secede. Another was that race was not an issue, Sarat being of mixed race with black features in contrast to her fraternal twin, Dana.

Most of the characters were well developed and likeable. Even those who turned out to be unlikeable, started out in better terms. I found myself always empathetic to Sarat, her decisions always being clearly motivated.

In short, it is a good read on a harrowing theme.

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Still Reading

The House of Broken AngelsThe House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The settings are San Diego, Tijuana, La Paz. The patriarch of the family is dying and throws one last birthday party that is combined with his mother’s funeral. I felt like I had attended the party, and the party felt like being at a family gathering as an outsider, trying to remember who belonged to whom and which generation they were. I was amused by a phrase at one point, “in the back room were children of unknown provenance.” To add to the confusion, characters are called by many names.

The first section (the mother’s funeral and the night before the party) and the third section (the party itself) are presented in time slots during which we are given a look into what various family members are doing–interspersed with memories, sometimes inner flashbacks and other times revelations in conversation. The middle section provides earlier family history.

As in any family, there are feuds and misunderstandings, members more and less likeable. All are presented sympathetically. Some of the drama is in the past, some in the present. The pace, never slow, quickens at the end when I couldn’t find a section where I could put it down.

Urrea is a new author to me. Thank goodness I heard him talk and read at Portland Book Festival. Now I have to go back and read earlier novels!

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Good Reading Weather

Etta and Otto and Russell and JamesEtta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My reaction to this novel wavered: sometimes ho-hum, sometimes put off by a stylistic decision, sometimes drawn in and fascinated. I remained puzzled throughout. There are two kinds of puzzlement (at least): 1. puzzled, confused, annoyed and 2. puzzled,intrigued,pondering–willing to reread. My experience was mostly the latter.

This is not a realistic novel, so that opens the door to the question of Why? What reality beyond reality can be conveyed through non-reality? My first answer to that was a feminist one. Etta had so melded with Otto that she needed something dramatic to regain her own identity, so she left, at age 82, on an unrealistic trek across the whole of Canada, on foot. And Otto, understanding, let her go. How else to explain his not pursuing her? Or her dreaming his war dreams? That held up for the first half, then data no longer fit. (view spoiler) I don’t yet have a second answer.

I found it interesting that she always had enough money, that her shoes wore out only once. I began to wonder if the whole novel–in spite of being told from three points of view–was all taking place in one mind. In some ways, the end supports that. (view spoiler)

Early on the pacing was tedious. I kept waiting for a revelation of why Etta left; I kept waiting for the story of a juicy triangle. Neither happened. The triangle was real, but very low key. No more reason was given than we got in the first line of the novel. Normally I like a novel that moves meaningfully between past and present. This one didn’t seem to move meaningfully, but arbitrarily. And the portions were too short. So I found it annoying, at first. I even wondered if in fact there would be no story if it were told chronologically. Gradually, however, the segments of each portion got longer, and I got more attuned to the characters, and I got to caring more about them the more I learned. I pondered who loved Etta more, Otto who let her go or Russell who pursued her.

And is it significant that the talking animal is coyote, and Coyote is a known trickster? And if so, what was the trick?

Yes, I will most likely read the novel again someday.

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Wordstock

Among Portland traditions is the all day event called Wordstock, an event currently presented by Literary Arts and held in several venues near the Portland Art Museum. After last year when the crowds were twice the number expected and disgruntled people stood in line but still didn’t get in to sessions, it was a relief to have the six added venues. Large auditoriums were almost filled, but a few empty seats remained, so I’m guessing that most people got in to sessions of their choice.

Several of my choices were sessions recorded for later presentation on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)’s Thinking Out Loud, starting with Sherman Alexie in dialog. He read his first picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., interspersing many observations and anecdotes. In addition to enjoying his humor, I appreciated his observation that laughter, in addition to making harsh reality bearable, functions as prayer.

Last year I came home with a list of 12 books, mostly all novels, to add to my to-read list. This year there were fewer books and novels for later. One session was a dud–bad acoustics, bad diction. Who knows, I might have been interested in one of the books had I heard what was said.

I did come away wanting to read two memoirs from teachers: Michael Copperman’s Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta, for a more realistic look at what a teacher can accomplish than the Hollywood myth, and Nicholson Baker’s Substitute: Going to School With One Thousand Kids for some of his observations about meaningful education.

Baker and an afternoon presenter, Sallie Tisdale, made similar observations from their childhoods and recommended their freedom: each had been allowed to read anything they wanted to.

From the session titled “Tales of Two Americas,” I came away with novels (Richard Russo), essays (Karen Russell) and poetry (Kevin Young) to read. Don’t hold your breath, but someday there will be posts reviewing these various readings.

 

 

 

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A Book Instead of a Quilt

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This amazing book caught my interest with the first paragraph, and that without the ‘in medias res’ beginning. Oh there was back story, but the actual plot began in Chapter 1 with two girls stealing fruit.

The pace is leisurely for the first two thirds, then speeds up, the style descriptive and immediate. There were few characters, though towns and other activities were implied. The characters were well developed with flaws and virtues–all but one, who had no redeeming qualities.

Much of the book was about ideas never stated (the Orchardist himself, Jane and Della, sometimes Caroline Middey, though she was the most likely to speak) or about inability to speak (Clee). Angeline was more the one who wanted to know than one not communicating. Each had their own type of isolation, though there were also relationships.

The novel deals with aging, birth, the growing up of children, and the diminished abilities of the elderly, always matter of factly, sometimes understated. Never heavy handed philosophizing.

This is a rare book that remains excellent through the ending. (view spoiler)

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