Ghosts in the Slave Grounds

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award for Fiction and recent MacArthur Genius Award winner Jesmyn Ward explores family bonds and racial prejudice and oppression in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Racism permeates the patch traversed by Jojo and his sister Kayla, his grandfather Pop and dying mother Mam, and his self-absorbed mother Leonie and his white father Michael, the pair not much older than children, and brings forth his murdered uncle Given, and another thirteen-year-old boy Richie, killed on the prison farm of Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Both Given and Richie, visible to Jojo, seek but can never find the release of justice, both stark and brutal reminders that post-racial America exists merely as a rhetorical phrase fronting a myth. As grim as this sounds, and as shocking as the family’s odyssey proves, Ward does find hope in the familial bonds of Jojo, Kayla, and Pop.

The story is about two journeys, one in real time and the other through recent history. Leonie solicits her white friend Misty, who has an imprisoned black boyfriend, to retrieve Michael from Parchman with her, where he has finished his term for cooking and selling meth. She thinks it’s a good idea to bring along her children, Kayla, a toddler, and Jojo, thirteen. As readers learn, she isn’t much of a mother, so bad and absent that her children can’t call her mom. She works but her passions are Michael, longing for Michael, and getting high. The burden of caring for the children fall to Pop and Mam, who now lies in bed, wracked by pain as she dies of cancer. Fortunately for Kayla and Jojo, Pop knows how to care for his family. As Jojo and Kayla share a special bond, so do Jojo and Pop. Pop teaches him how to live on the farm, the secrets of the woods and the animals, and of survival. He’s a man who has seen and experienced much pain in his life, including having served a term as a teen in Parchman. Slowly, over time, he tells Jojo the story of Richie, which is the tale of black oppression summed up in the short, brutal life of a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a story Pop can barely finish, because, as readers will eventually learn, the ending is so horrifying.

Needless to say, the auto trip proves excruciating for the four, partly because Kayla becomes sick during it and nobody but Jojo seems to care or know how to comfort and help the child. When they eventually pick up Michael, the return trip devolves into something even more harrowing. Before getting Micheal, Leonie and Misty stop over at their lawyer’s house, Al. When you are dirt poor, as these people are, you get the Als of the world, representation by a drug addled wasted white man. He sends them off with crystal meth, and wouldn’t you know it, only hours out of prison, a cop pulls them over. Leonie, out love perhaps, desperation for certain, swallows the meth and what results nearly costs the travelers their freedom, and Jojo his life. It’s a scene straight out of a worst nightmare.

As if this wasn’t enough, Leonie possesses the ability envied by her mother, of seeing the dead. Perhaps this is supernatural, but it’s more likely the pain of losing her brother Given to murder. Suffice to say here that against all good advice, star athlete Given thought his white teammates regarded him as he regarded him, as brothers. In the end, his trust and misreading of race killed him as surely as the bullet. Let’s leave it for readers to discover the circumstances on their own. Leonie believes she sees him, voiceless, observing all her bad deeds. Jojo possesses this ability as well. It manifests when they pick up Michael from Parchman and Richie hitches a ride to find his old benefactor, Pop, whom he knows as River. What is little, perpetually a child Ritchie seeking? He’s wants the one person he felt ever acknowledged and cared about him. There’s much sadness here, but none sadder than Ritchie and what he represents.

While many will think, no, this isn’t a book for me, it, in fact, probably is a book for you, and especially for people who will never know about it. Because it is a story that needs telling and feeling on a visceral level, with the right among of openness to receive and acknowledge it. Strongly recommended. w/c


Beguiled by Wealth

The Locals

By Jonathan Dee

A very rich man, Philip Hadi, decides to make the small New England town of Howland, situated in southwestern Massachusetts, his family’s permanent home. Though something of a gnomish fellow, he possesses a feature which at once puts the locals off and thoroughly beguiles them. That something is his fabulous wealth and how he uses it to exercise his will over the town. And how he inspires a man, Mark Firth, to dream big and go for it with foreclosure purchases and renovations, in other words, house flipping. The point of the whole thing boils down to pathetic irony, for everything hoped for and promised devolves into the opposite.

The novel opens in New York City immediately after 9/11 with the first-person account of a grifter flummoxed by the general feelings of bonhomie and unity among New Yorkers. This, he grumbles often, is not New York. He cleaned up suing the city when he drunkenly walked in front of city bus. Promptly, he lost his winnings to a bigger grifter, an investment swindler, making him part of a class action suit. Which introduces readers to the central character of Jonathan Dee’s The Locals, Mark Firth, who is a small time contractor in Howland, also robbed by the investment swindler. By the end of the opening pages, Firth returns to Howland, once again raked over the coals of life, the victim of identity theft. Mark, oh Mark, you indeed are a mark, borne out by the balance of the novel.

Life in Howland is none too good. As with the rest of America at the time, fear consumes people. Even the Philip Hadi types, a Tom Wolfe “Master of the Universe,” are taken aback, which accounts for Hadi’s resettlement in Howland. Beyond that, though, Howland is a town in economic trouble. Mark, while better off than most, finds himself among them, with work scarce, his credit destroyed, and his marriage to Karen shaky, partly as a result of the financial swindle. Hadi proves a godsend, providing Mark with plenty of work and money to fortify the millionaire’s house against the fearful shadows of imagination. Rubbing elbows with Hadi plants in Mark’s mind the idea of possibilities. Here’s the thing about realizing financial possibilities: you’re lulled into believing the good times will go on forever. Then something like 2008 happens (the bookend of the novel).

Back to Howland. Taxes are rising and the populace isn’t happy. So when Hadi tells the locals he knows a way to treat them to more services and reduce their taxes, they make him First Selectman (mayor in New England parlance). And he delivers, covering a huge number of expenses out of his own pocket, while cutting their property taxes. Not to put too fine a point on it, they trade the American myth of rugged individualism for a few pieces of silver. Not everybody misses this. Mark’s brother, Gerry, for instance. He works in a real estate firm, which he hates, and from which he is fired. On the q-t under a pseudonym he rabble rouses about independence in a newsletter that not many read, until he becomes a pawn in a small-town political coup, exasperated when Hadi decides it’s safe to return to the city, taking his support of the town with him.

Mark, Karen, and Gerry are but three of a cast of small town characters, all with his or her own sets of problems and axes to grind, including Mark and Karen’s preteen daughter Haley, and their sister Candace, who manages to lose her teaching job, end up as librarian/social worker, and functions, to her unhappiness, as the caretaker of their ailing parents.

There’s more, but this is the gist. You’ll find much truth here. If you are from a small town, you may recognize how well Dee captures its essence. And while this all may sound a bit downbeat, Dee manages to find enough humor to prevent readers feeling too miserable. Many will find the novel a fair assessment of America life, of fears and hopes, in the first years of the 21st century. w/c

Making Choices in Nazi Germany

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives

Karin Wieland

If Karin Wieland’s dual biography does nothing else, it vividly illustrates that your choices do make a difference.

In the case of Marlene Dietrich, her move to the U.S. and particularly her active support of the Allied war effort enhanced her reputation, even when some of the films she made were not the best.

By contrast, though Riefenstahl proved herself a prodigious filmmaking skill, she achieved her greatest successes by dubious methods and in the service of the greatest evil in a century that witnessed a good deal of murderous events.

Regarding Dietrich, you could admire her talent openly and happily, whereas you might concede Riefenstahl’s talent, but given the subject and the service to which she put it, a qualifier must follow any positive comment. This is not a biography devoid of a viewpoint, being very much black and white in favor of Dietrich.

Worthwhile for those interested in early filmmaking, Nazi Germany, and, of course, the actress and the propagandist. While the book includes an assortment of photos, a wider selection keyed to some of the events covered would be appreciated. Includes footnotes, a brief reading list, and a helpful index. w/c

Let’s Intellectualize a Story to Death

Zero K

By Don DeLillo

The big idea in this novel focusing on cryogenics, life, death, and rebirth is certainly sufficient to draw many readers to at least sample the first few pages. Some will find DeLillo’s prose styling arresting, others will forbear the stultifying language (in a novel partly about language defining life) in pursuit of this cryogenic hook, and many others, probably the majority, will take a pass.

The storyline is pretty simple. You have a super rich father, Ross Lockhart, whose young wife, his second, is dying. Turns out he is the major investor in a cryogenic project, Convergence, preserving people in a special facility located in a desolate area of the Asian continent. Not just a freezing center, it’s an entirely new culture in which participants commit themselves to returning cured and healthy to build a new, better world, one eschewing the many horrors of current civilization and expressing their new ideas and approach in a unique language. While preparation of his wife for freezing takes place, he, though a healthy sixty, contemplates joining her, becoming something of an advance guard of believers who take the leap, leap death, leap into the future. Sounds like a cult, in this case a cult of aesthetes, the idea further reinforced by the appearance of frozen bodies as art. Is Ross merely trying to escape his mortality, or are he and his compadres on to something? Go figure for yourself.

His son Jeffery, mid-thirties guy ambling through life, is a fellow of the here and now (indicated by his detailed descriptions of minutiae) and due to the terrible way Ross treated his first wife, Jeff’s mother, he’s none too fond of his dad. Nor does he appreciate his father’s meddling in hooking him up with super wealthy jobs. Jeff has a girlfriend, Emma, divorced from her husband, who lives in Denver with their son Stak. Stak is something of a wild child, a young teen who wants and seems to run his own life. You get the impression that the Emma-Jeff relationship lacks passion, but then it might just be the overall tone of the novel, a bunch of words and ideas lumped together and devoid of any real passion, like the Convergence dugout in the desert, another sterile place.

Some reviewers called this DeLillo’s best novel, an achievement of sorts. There are many, especially fans of his earlier work, to wit White Noise, who will disagree. Of interest to some, but a trial for most primarily because it intellectualizes mightily and delivers little. w/c

Women Exerting Their Independence

Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere may be one of the best novels you read this year, and certainly the best about women exercising control over their lives while rebelling against societal strictures. It also may be one of the best novels using place as a character, here as a contrast to the untidiness of human life.

Ng takes great care to provide readers with a strong and clear sense of place. The place is Shaker Heights, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Cleveland. Shaker Heights as a planned greenbelt town dates back to 1909. It was and is a highly organized community governed by strict rules regarding nearly every aspect of the standardization of neighborhoods and structures. According to her biography, her family moved to Shaker Heights when Celeste was ten, and she graduated from Shaker Heights High School before moving on to Harvard. If there was ever an example of a hometown serving an author well and being incorporated into a novel almost as a character, this is it. Shaker Heights represents an ideal, well ordered, structured, affluent, a manifestation of the American Dream. That real life rarely measures up to the dream and seems to fit into a place like Shaker only with much shoehorning comes through loud and clear, and might be taken as a subtext of the novel.

The time is the late Nineties (implied by characters’ music choices, TV shows, and the like, until Ng explicitly sets the date late in the novel). The novel opens at the end, with the Richardson’s house burned to naked brick and rafters, and with a Richardson daughter missing. The story unfolds in the past, when Mia Warren and her teen daughter Pearl rent an apartment in a two-flat owned by the Richardsons. The contrast between Elena Richardson and Mia Warren is about as stark as it can get. Mrs. Richardson is married to her college love, who is a lawyer; Mia is unmarried. Elena Richardson works for a small Shaker newspaper, an accommodation to establishing a family and living in Shaker Heights; Mia is an artist, employing photography and montage techniques. Elena grew up in Shaker Heights and wanted to live nowhere else; Mia is a nomad, pulling up stakes every few months. Elena has four children, Trip, Lexie, Izzy, and Moody; Mia has only Pearl. Elena and Izzy are in constant conflict, primarily because neither fully understands how much each means to the other; Mia and Pearl live generally harmoniously together.

Mia, while a well regarded artist who sells her creations through a gallery in New York, hardly gets by on her work. To supplement her income, she works variously as a waitress, cleaning woman, and the like. Elena, who prides herself on providing a helping hand to deserving people, and who sees value in Mia’s talent, takes her on to work part-time in her home. Meanwhile, in school, Mia becomes friends with Moody and ends up spending much of her time in the Richardson home. For the first time in her life, she finds a welcoming home in which she feels truly comfortable. That stands in contrast to Izzy, who finds no welcome or comfort in her home, but who does find it with Mia, when she volunteers as Mia’s assistant. Unlike Shaker, you see, the relations of people living in it become messy pretty quickly, especially when unexpected romantic attachments develop among the teens.

Even more, Mia Warren is a woman with a past, which Ng relates in some of the novel’s strongest pages. Suffice to say that her past has a significant bearing another bit of central action in the novel. This involves the adoption by Elena’s close Shaker friends, the McCulloughs. They have tried for years to have children, finally turning to adoption. At it for years, they finally have the chance to adopt a child left at a local firehouse, and they grab it. It’s a Chinese baby they name Mirabelle. Then the baby’s mother, under the guidance of Mia, emerges to reclaim her child. A court battle ensues that raises elemental questions about motherhood. You will find yourself in the position of the judge, torn between both sides.

These then are the barest of the novel’s bones, but none of its humanity, and certainly not a drop of its wonderful nuance and tone. And the tone, here Ng possesses a special talent, indeed, for from the beginning it’s as if an old friend has put an arm around you and softly tells you a story about a town that looks perfect but which is filled with disturbing conflicts, with life altering decisions, with crushing sadness for some, but with new hope for others. Highly recommended. w/c

A Novel to Throw at Your Wall

Almost Missed You

By Jessica Strawser

Some who have read even cursorily into a small shelf of beach books, romantic mysteries, gothic potboilers, and the like, have probably encountered their fair share of head-shaking plots and self-flagellating characters. Even they, however, will find Jessica Strawser’s novel worthy of a gasp or three. And that’s not meant in a good way.

This novel, a suspense of sorts, revolves entirely around the plot. A happily married young woman, married to whom she thought was a dream man, returns from the beach to check in on her husband and young son. She finds them both missing and embarks on a frantic search to no avail. Turns out the dream husband has absconded with their child without nary a word of explanation or whiff of a clue. She returns home to have her grandmother try to help her face the situation. The FBI enters the case. Nothing can lift her from her funk and everything reminds her of her son, even the silence; self torment goes on for pages.

Her name is Violet. Her husband is Finn. She met him on a beach while on vacation, their sole connection that they had in their youth attended the same summer camp. Years pass before they hook up again and it is then that they marry and have their son Bear. They renew their relationship in Cincinnati. Through Finn, they have friends, Caitlin and George. These two are fabulously wealthy, not only by virtue of George’s family’s wealth and political connections, but also by George’s own business acumen. Finn and Caitlin have known each other for years and years. They share a bond that Caitlin’s husband respects, seemingly. When Caitlin, who has had a terrible time conceiving, issues twins, and Violet births Bear, Caitlin and Violet bond like hydrogen and oxogen. But, and this is the super big plot propulsion that drives the novel and probably why many have and will find it appealing: each harbors a profound secret chilling enough to transform their elemental bond of friendship in a block of ice between them. Enough said about the plot or your experience, if you decide to read the book, will be spoiled. Suffice it to say the whole thing will strike some of you as preposterous.

Now, we’ve all read the unbelievable and ridiculous when it comes to suspense and mystery novels. Usually, though, we can overlook this shortcoming because the author writes so well. Crisp dialogue. Enticing descriptions. Characters with substance. Situations that, within the context of the absurd, carry enough veracity to keep us going. Think Patricia Highsmith and others like her. Unfortunately, Almost Missed You possesses none of these saving graces. What that leaves you with is something guaranteed to try your patience. Dents in walls are made by books like this. w/c

Lunacy in Midlife

Who Is Rich?

By Matthew Klam

Rich Fischer is a cartoonist and author of comics. These aren’t funny comics, or action comics, but serious comics otherwise known as graphic novels. So with his life, which is sort of cartoonish in its exaggeration, kind of funny at times, but mostly tortured by creative angst, by a marriage that feels hollow and stifling, and by a love affair that intensifies his feelings of inadequacy and failure. In other words, Rich Fischer spends all but the last few pages of Who Is Rich? in high dudgeon over his life, his wife, his two small children, his super rich lover, and his students, one of whom is embarking on a potentially spectacular career, one Rich believed he might have had, if only. You might duplicate the experience of reading the novel by planting yourself in front of a mirror, dredging your life, and raging at yourself. Hopefully, you’ll come away from the introspection with as least the foundation of optimism as does Rich.

At the opening of the novel, Rich returns for another stint as an instructor at a workshop for writers, artists, sculptors, and cartoonists, located in New England, on the ocean, at a college in its last throes. You only have to flip the opening page to see what Rich, also our narrator, and you are in for: “On the faculty were many friends I’d come to know over the years as intellects, historians, wordsmiths, talented performers, storytellers with big fake teeth, addicts, drunkards, perverts, world-famous womanizers, sufferers of gout, maniacs, liars—embittered, delusional, accomplished, scared of spiders, unable to swim loveless, and cruel.” Notice how the thought descends. So, if it sounds as if you are entering a madhouse, well, maybe; or maybe it’s just what plumbing your being for inspiration does to you. In Rich’s case, it’s partly this, for in fact he has done just this in writing his successful first graphic, long out of print, and partly him smacking into the wall of midlife crisis. He loves his wife; he hates his wife. He loves his kids; they drive him nuts. He, maybe, likes domestic life; it impedes him from writing and drawing. He loves his rich lover; he resents her for his own feelings of inadequacy.

This is something of an emotional riot of a novel that can, if you let it, jangle your nerves. Matthew Klam writes with verve, lots and lots of it, enough to give you a headache. It’s an intense experience, and that might be understating it a bit. For those with creative ambitions, you might like to see how failing at that ambition can consume you. For people who suspect creative types are noninstitutionalized oddballs, you may find confirmation here. And for folks who once thought they might have had it in them, well perhaps you’ll discover renewed solace in your life, something Rich Fischer appears to be scrambling to find for himself.

Oh, yes, the title: it draws a contrast between super rich lover Amy and near bankrupt Rich. If only Klam were right about who is really the rich one outside the pages of a novel. w/c