The 2012 American Library Association Notable Books List was announced last Sunday–and that made January 22 a Recognized Holiday at my house. I’ve got several notables checked out, a few more on hold, and I have finished my first–“We the Animals” by Justin Torres.
After last year’s rants about LONG books dominating the list, I can ease up this year. In fact, “We the Animals” is only 128 pages.
It’s a series of short stories told by the youngest of three brothers in a contemporary family. Their father is Puerto Rican, and their mom is anglo, both from Brooklyn originally, although the family lives now in upstate New York.
The stories reminded me of Andre Dubus III’s “Townie” in their mix of profound family chaos, fierce love, and edginess.
In one story, the boy is alone left too long at a Niagara Falls museum. To keep himself occupied, he ends up dancing in front of a film that nobody else is viewing, enjoying the movement and the lights on his body. He realizes that his dad has finally returned, and has been watching him, perhaps for some time. His dad realizes how “pretty” his son is. That begins the movement toward the book’s end, as the young man realizes he’s gay, and engineers his first sexual encounter.
When I finished this, I noted that I felt like I was either in the presence of genius, or needed a shower. The scenes in this book so often put the narrator and his brothers in situations that were dirty or grimy or slightly dangerous or mean. And yet there remained that sense of love and solidarity. How did Torres manage that?
Torres writes in a deceptively simple way that seems just to describe, but that also sets a tone.
I will recommend this to people who appreciate spare writing, who seek varieties of experiences, and who can tolerate edginess. I’ll also bring it to the attention of book groups.
Over the weekend, I read “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America” by Steven Johnson.
Basically, it’s a book about Joseph Priestley, the 18th century scientist/pastor/political writer who is credited with discovering oxygen. Priestley was born and lived most of his life in England, moving to the United States in 1794 after a mob angry about his writings burned down his home.
I liked it partly because it reads quickly–I’ve been working on a suitable descriptor for a book that moves along at a fast pace–and is relatively short, at 215 pages. As a reader, I prefer a fast pace. I know plenty of readers who love a slow-moving long book. They might have felt cheated by this one. I mention that pace because one might expect that a book about a historical figure who was a scientist/pastor/political writer might move along slowly.
That said, Johnson diverges fairly often from Priestley’s story to take a broader look at his times, and often also the filter of certain themes from which to consider the 21st century. For instance, Priestley was part of a group of London men who often had coffee together, a group called “The Club of Honest Whigs.” They talked into the evening on all sorts of subjects, and with them, Priestley was able to articulate and develop his own points of view. This ability to share ideas, to stay in close communication, to build on each others’ work, was new to the times. The broadmindedness of the group certainly played into its role in developing ideas, but that ability to communicate was key. Johnson compares that to what the Internet offers to scientists and thinkers to day–unparalleled access to each others’ thoughts.
There’s something about this era of “amateur” scientists such as Priestley that so clearly is a thing of the past. Johnson reflects on the impact that leisure time had. Priestley was well-educated, curious, and had time. Others, for example, Thomas Jefferson in the United States, showed similar lifelong avocations of science combined with political pursuits. Johnson laments the way that politicians now leave science to others…and perhaps are proud of their lack of scientific understanding.
Johnson places much more emphasis on Priestley’s scientific work than on his religious thinking (he’s prominent in the history of the Unitarian church) and political writing, but Johnson certainly sees the breadth of his interests as key to Priestley’s success.
From time to time, I wondered if Johnson might be standing on some fairly thin ice when pulling the big ideas from this one life and applying them to our time. And yet there is a compelling sense in which it would be easy to imagine Johnson himself around the coffee table with the Club of Honest Whigs, building one idea on top of another, sometimes getting a little beyond himself.
For that reason, I may not recommend this to serious and well-read students of the science of history. But I will recommend it to my reading friends who enjoy history, who want to ponder the big ideas that connect one time with another, and who may not know enough about this intriguing man.
I’m continuing my reading of “best of the year” titles, this time from Library Journal.
“Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones begins with a fabulous first sentence, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”
The novel is told by Witherspoon’s two daughters, both growing up in Atlanta in the 1980s.
The first section is told by Dana Lynn Yarboro. She is the “outside daughter.” Her mother knew from the start that Witherspoon was married to someone else. As she approached Dana’s birth, she and Witherspoon went across the state line and married. Dana grows up feeling herself second best, watching her mother work hard to ensure that Witherspoon provide well for Dana, sometimes “surveiling” the other wife and daughter. Dana begins to engineer ways to interact with her half-sister.
The second section is told by Chaurisse Witherspoon, that half-sister who is just four months younger than Dana. Chaurisse grows up not knowing about the other family. In contrast to Dana and her mother, Chaurisse and her mother consider themselves plain. Chaurisse’s story begins to include Dana, who Chaurisse describes as a “silver girl,” someone who is pretty and presents herself stylishly, someone different from Chaurisse. Inevitably, trouble happens with the two, and the secret family comes into the light.
The third and final short section returns to Dana, as an adult with a baby girl of her own. Chaurisse has “surveiled” her, and they have a brief conversation that reveals that the two are no longer connected. And yet it is clear, they will always be connected.
I enjoyed this as an old-fashioned story, told in a straightforward way. I liked how Jones included much about the working lives of the adults in the story, and her picture of African American middle class culture of the 1980’s. She develops these characters well, makes them distinct from each other, even as they all revolve around the one man, James Witherspoon. She explores themes of friendship, family, secrets, and love.
I’ve noted previously that often I’m impatient in “braided story” novels because I end up finding one person much more compelling than another. In this case, I found both girls equally interesting.
I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy novels about regular people reacting to crazy events. It’s a perfect book group choice, with so many secrets to explore and people to analyze.
I came across “The Call” by Yannick Murphy in a “best of the year” sort of list. It’s a novel about a New England veterinarian whose son is shot while hunting.
It’s format was a tad off-putting to me at first. It’s told as if in notes regarding the calls that the veterinarians receives. For instance, from page one:
Call: A cow with her dead calf halfborn.
Action: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
Result: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.
Thoughts on Drive Home While Passing Red and Gold Leaves on Maple Trees: Is there a nicer place to live?
Once I got used to the rhythm of the format, I enjoyed the story, and even began to like the distance that this structure provided. The entries are a mix of mundane, emotional, wry, and intense. When the veterinarian’s son is shot, the format keeps the action from being overwhelming, somehow. The obsession he develops for learning who shot his son is entirely believable, even as it mixes in to his wry observations about the households and animals he visits. Events turn once again when a young man shows up who is his son, via a sperm donation he made in his college days.
The one quibble I have is that when the son must be in the hospital following the shooting, I felt an inadequate connection to everything medical–all of the decisions, the instruments, the machinery, the weirdness of time in the hospital. His thoughts didn’t leave his son often, but I didn’t sense the way that a hospital often becomes a family’s hearth when a child is in a coma.
Looking back on this story, it strikes me as “old fashioned” in these ways–the veterinarian is someone who wants to be a good man. He loves his family. He works hard. He’s a regular guy. The things that happen could happen to anyone. They shake him up. He does a few silly things, but all in all, he behaves in ways that make perfect sense, and that underscore a basic decency about him. His ability always to see something a little differently and often without judgment, to find humor and happy irony, create a distinctive tone. And make a clear contrast with his focus on the shooter.
I’ll recommend this to people as a quirky but satisfying read. It probably requires a slightly quirky reader, too, but I predict that once people get accustomed to the rhythm of the language, they will take to the people and the place.
One of my favorite customer service people at the Mail Plus store on South Street called my attention to “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James a couple of months before it came out in December.
The book is a P.D. James mystery in a Jane Austen setting, a kind of sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” While skeptical that anyone, even the fabulous P.D. James, could do justice to Jane Austen, I was intrigued. Over the holidays I began “Death Comes to Pemberley.”
James creates the setting just a few years after Elizabeth Bennett marries Mr. Darcy. As the story opens, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia arrives at Pemberley on a dark and stormy night, to announce hysterically that her husband, the notorious Wickham, has been killed in the Pemberley woods.
From there, a classic mystery evolves. P.D. James writes well, and she crafts a mystery just as well. I enjoyed reading this story. I liked the references to “Pride and Prejudice” and even to other Austen novels. But I missed two critical pieces–Austen’s light touch, and her focus on the women.
Alas, I’m married to someone who doesn’t appreciate Jane Austen’s sense of humor. I’ll often read aloud from what I consider a hilarious excerpt, and he just doesn’t laugh. But really, that humor is all over Austen. It’s in her clever conversation and observed gestures. The central act of this book, a death, squelches any chance of the light touch. The sense of appropriate solemnity at Pemberley hangs heavy throughout the story.
Much of the action revolves around Mr. Darcy, a stand-in for Adam Dalgliesh perhaps. I found myself wishing that P.D. James had instead woven the story around Elizabeth.
I don’t like what I’ve written because I wanted to love this book, and hoped to have only good things to say about something written by P.D. James.
I’ll still recommend this book to mystery readers, and even to fans of Jane Austen as an interesting accessory. I just won’t go overboard in my enthusiasm, and I’ll be clear that this is definitely a P.D. James book. And as I should have known from the start, if I want Jane Austen…then I need to read Jane Austen.