I have a new way of evaluating how well a book is working for me–do I find it engaging when I read it in the evening? Many of you recall that I’m a morning person, and if a book doesn’t make it for me around 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, it never will. Conversely, if I find a book compelling after dinner, well, THAT’s a good book.
“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave came from the fiction portion of this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list AND I enjoyed reading most of it in the evening. I hadn’t exactly been looking forward to reading it. I knew that it involved a girl who’d been chased and … I wasn’t sure what… in Nigeria before ending up in England.
As it turns out, I enjoyed reading this, despite the intense Nigerian scenes of Little Bee’s sister’s death, and a British woman’s violent act to save Little Bee. The story is told in the alternating voices of Little Bee and Sarah, that woman. Part of the effectiveness of the story lies in the contrast between Little Bee as a traumatized and marginalized undocumented alien and Sarah, a stylish magazine editor. Neither is all bad or good, and yet both won my sympathy. I admire the way that Cleave doles out pieces of their stories and weaves secrets together. Sarah’s story is that of a regular person who finds herself in the midst of a bewildering and dangerous situation. She wants to rise to that, despite her clear shortcomings. Now that I think of it, Little Bee, too, is a regular person who finds herself in the midst of a bewildering and dangerous situation.
I’ll recommend it to readers who appreciate a fine sense of plot and timing and who are willing to work through difficulty to consider how the human spirit responds to evil.
I’m continuing my reading of the American Library Association Notable Books List.
I’m delighted to say that “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Great Race the World Has Never Seen” by Chrisopher McDougall exemplifies why I love the Notables list–I find titles like this that I haven’t heard of, and that I enjoy immensely.
McDougall has done a good deal of writing about outdoor sports for periodicals such as “Men’s Health” and “Outside.” In this book, he tells his own story of becoming obsessed with a group of people called the Tarahumara, a tribe of people in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. He’s heard that they can run hundreds of miles, that they can chase down animals such as deer, and that (the most amazing thing) they enjoy it.
In the course of the story, he travels to Mexico in search of these people, then gets to know athletes in the United States who are ultramarathon runners, covering up to 100 miles through day and night. Eventually, this all comes together in a race in the Copper Canyons, with a mix of Tarhumara runners and US elite athletes. It’s quite a story, full of personalities, with a few interesting background sections on topics such as the effectiveness of running shoes and whether it makes any sense to think that a person could run down a deer.
I know that I’m a sucker for this kind of nonfiction that picks up the thread of a story about an interesting subculture that I know nearing nothing about, and then weaves a fabric that seems to get stronger as the story progresses. It can be a real challenge for an author to insert himself far enough into the story for interest, and to explore certain emotional aspects, without making the story about HIM. McDougall succeeds on this count.
I’ll embrace this title when I choose which books from this year’s Notable List to highlight. I’m recommending it to runners, to people who love to read about extreme behavior, and those who are happy to read a story that’s quite outside of their own experience.
Over the Independence Day weekend, I finished “Tinkers” by Paul Harding, one of the fiction titles on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I’d started it before, but an odd thing happened. A little over halfway through, I encountered a two-page spread that was blank. Those two pages were simply gone. I figured I could live without them, but a few page turns beyond, and another two pages were blank, in all, 16 blank pages. I decided that was too much of 191 total pages, and so awaited a better copy.
The break between starting the book, and then re-reading until I got to my previous place, was good. This is one of those books where mostly the protagonist is looking back (think of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). Things happen, but the pace can seem awfully slow, especially if the reader wants Something To Happen. I was prepared for this.
In this case, George Crosby lies dying of kidney failure in a hospital bed in the living room of his own home, surrounded by his family. The first sentence tells that he is eight days from death, and as the book progresses, the reader learns how many hours remain. He hallucinates some, he returns to the world around him some, and he thinks about his father. Scenes from his father’s life intersperse, told not by George, but by an omniscient observer.
George’s father was a peddler early in the 1900’s. He was also an epileptic, a poet, and a magical thinker. He left George’s mother, George, his brother, and sister, when he realized that George’s mother was preparing to place him in a hospital for the mentally ill due to his seizures. He returned once just to see George, then a young married father, just to see him and say hello, not to stay, not to explain, not to re-establish the relationship. That scene of his showing up on George’s front step on a Christmas Day may be the image that I carry from this book. Something about it strikes me as especially poignant.
George himself becomes a teacher, then a counselor, and in retirement, a noted clock repairer. He clearly lives within a family sphere.
By book’s end, both men have died.
This book won the Pultizer Prize for fiction this year. Harding uses such clear language, creates such quietly intense scenes, contrasts personality against personality, and memory against present. This is a book for readers who love stories about people, who revel in language and dialogue, and who are perfectly okay when Something Does Not Happen.
And an interesting novel, it is. The story is told in two voices. One is Renee, the concierge of a Paris apartment building, and the other is Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl living in one of the apartments.
Both of them lead secret lives of intellectual engagement. Paloma’s revelation that she intends to commit suicide lends an air of urgency to the story. Their rich interior lives may not be to everyone’s taste. Renee’s contemplations of writers and artists and Paloma’s thoughts regarding the role of grammar (a way to attain beauty) may seem a tad too philosophical. I found that when I switched my expectation of the pace of the story to accommodate their ruminations, I enjoyed them.
The rhythm of their building changes when, for the first time in decades, one of the apartments is put up for sale. The new owner, Mr. Ozu, displays a knack for seeing into people, and does so in the most kind and gracious ways. He shows Renee and Paloma possibilities for outright intellectual engagement, combined with friendship. I began to feel a sense of hope for all of them.
But I will not “spoil” the ending by describing it here.
I can see why the selection committee brought this forward. The writing works. The voices are distinct. The characters stand out from one another. We come to respect (most of) those characters. That this is a translation from the original French increases my respect.
Have you read any of the One Book One Lincoln finalists? What have you thought so far? Have you voted for your choice yet? As ever, the best thing about One Book One Lincoln is the swirl of community conversation about books–let’s talk!
I’ve been thrilled by the public response to our announcement of the One Book One Lincoln finalists.
People have also had good things to say about a twist to this year’s program–readers get to vote on the winner. Please do vote for your selection during June and July. We’ll announce the winner in mid-September.
As I’ve noted in previous entries, I heartily recommend that you acquire a reading “discipline” (I’m wishing for a more fun word for this) such as always reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, or the Edgar Award winner, or…the five One Book One Lincoln finalists. Summer’s a great time to set this in motion, and One Book One Lincoln a fine motivator.
The best part of One Book One Lincoln, to my mind, is the community conversation that swirls all around it. Please do read at least one of the books, and then starting talking…or join the conversation on Facebook or on our website.
So far, I’ve read “Finding Nouf” by Zoe Ferraris and “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan. I recommend them both. I tend to remember single images more than I recall the flow of the narrative. In “Finding Nouf,” I’ll keep an image of the man who helps to track her, a desert tracker who remembers footprints like most of us remember faces. I can’t see a footprint now without remembering him. In “Loving Frank,” I’ll remember when Mamah reads the letter telling about the death of a beloved friend, and how a stranger helps her in her distress.
What do you remember? And what do you think of our finalists? Let’s talk!