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.
I wasn’t looking forward to “Matterhorn.” This was party due to its length at just under 600 pages, and partly due to the setting of Marines’ combat during the Vietnam War.
I’d checked it out and taken it home once before, and found myself without the time to dig in. This time I gave it my best shot, and eventually I found myself connecting with it.
Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam with no experience of commanding others, and with plenty of fear for what lies ahead. At first he seems mostly confusion and diffidence, unwilling to ask questions because he’s afraid to look stupid, and unsure of his likely courage under fire. Eventually, though, he becomes accustomed to the sights and sounds of war, and begins to see where his own talents can make a difference for the men with whom he eventually bonds.
I was struck over and over by the physical discomfort of the war–jungle rot, hunger and thirst, damp feet, leeches, and that short list doesn’t even touch the injuries and death that follow combat engagements.
The parallel story to that of the Marines in action is the politics behind the action–officers far behind the lines making decisions, politics that enter in to placement of troops, and the ability of the field officers to make their case. Another aspect to the politics is the politics of race, with overt hostilities between some white and black Marines.
Eventually, Marlantes led me to care about Mellas and his troops, and to find his situation compelling. Mellas clearly improves as an officer, does better in accepting responsibility, works the system effectively and finds himself no longer isolated from those around him.
The title is a code name referring to a mountain that becomes a base of operation.
Merlantes served in the Marines in Vietnam, and he took years to write this novel. I’ll recommend his book to people interested in the social history of war, especially Vietnam. I know that not everyone is willing to devote the time and difficult attention that this novel requires, but I will recommend it to those who recognize good fiction–sound pacing, strong character development, and literary construction of another place and time.
“Matterhorn” teams well with another Notable fiction, “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, which while also set in Vietnam during the war, takes a much different approach. Reading those two within the last month leads me to add the modern classic “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien to my reading list. Each year’s Notables List brings some of these lucky combinations of titles related by setting or theme, adding value to my reading of the List.
Rebecca Skloot tell the story of Mrs. Lacks, who became immortal when shortly before her death in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from a tumor on her cervix. Researchers were able to get the cells from that tissue to reproduce phenomenally. The cells, known as HeLa Cells (the first two letters of her first and last names) became a kind of medical commodity, since researchers needed human cells on which to perform all kinds of research. The family didn’t know, and were never compensated for them.
Skloot’s book is as much about the Lacks family as about the cells. At the time the cells were taken, doctors wouldn’t have thought twice about taking cells without permission, and especially wouldn’t have given consideration to taking cells from an African American. Lacks entered the hospital through a separate door, drank from a separate fountain, and probably got less care, than white people did.
The Lacks family didn’t know about the cells until much later. They received a lot of misinformation, that coupled with their own lack of scientific understanding to interpret what they were told. Much of Skloot’s story centers on their attempts to understand what happened. In particular, Lacks’s daughter Deborah takes center stage, in middle age when Skloots began the book.
This book meshes well with another Notable nonfiction, “The Warmth of Other Suns” about the Great Migration. Henrietta Lacks ended up in Baltimore because the men of the family found work there, moving north from Clover, Virginia.
Skloot successfully weaves together the scientific information with the story of this family. She creates a strong narrative thread.
I’m recommending this to many readers, those who enjoy a good story, nonfiction readers who especially appreciate a good story that actually happened, and to students of our American culture.
I have a feeling that Lincoln City Libraries will soon own The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, one of the fiction entries on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. For now, a person might try Interlibrary Loan to obtain a copy.
In short, “The Lotus Eaters” is the story of Helen Adams, who becomes a war photographer in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She becomes addicted to the rush of taking pictures in dangerous situations. She falls in love with two men, a grizzled photographer who takes her under his wing, and a Vietnamese man who is his photographic assistant and guardian angel.
It’s told in chapters with various locations and years; the location and sometimes the year given at the start of each. The story opens with Helen in Saigon as the country is falling in April of 1975. She encounters a little girl who seems to have become lost from her family. The story gets picked up in various places and times, filling in the story of Helen, her career, her loves, and the war.
This isn’t an easy read. As with any book about war, there are difficult scenes. Sometimes Soli’s way of moving from place to place and year to year is disconcerting, but I had a sense that that’s what she intended.
My complaint about this story is that Soli tends to tell instead of show. The most egregious example of this is her description of a lovely Christmas dinner that is interrupted when Helen’s lover arrives just from a battlefield, dirty and bloody, to say that one of their colleagues died that day. He says, “Jack was killed tonight. We were ambushed in a jeep patrol in Gia Dinh.” Soli then writes, “The holiday mood destroyed, the host clapped a hand on his back then poured him a drink.” Did she need to tell us that the holiday mood was destroyed? I realize that a lot of context must be provided to explain cultural and historical details, but too often I sensed her writing an informational sentence instead of creating a way within the story to convey the information.
This book just won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction, so I have to believe that others found the writing excellent. I did enjoy the characters as Soli developed them. What I came to love about the story was how the country itself became almost a character. I felt myself far away.
I’ll recommend this general literary fiction readers and certainly to book groups–its historical context, ambitious female character, and interesting relationships will provide plenty of discussion fodder.
I heard Nathaniel Philbrick speak in June, and so I was especially interested in reading his “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s Notable Books List.
The Last Stand presents a daunting narrative–the history of US treatment of Native Americans, especially those of the Northern Plains, of Chief Sitting Bull, of General Custer, of the officers under Custer’s command, of the thousands of people who were in Sitting Bull’s village along the Little Big Horn, of all of the movements of officers and Native people.
I’m not familiar with the details of the Last Stand, and found it difficult to keep up with descriptions of the military movements. My guess is that those who’ve studied it previously would not have difficulty here.
As a general reader, my main complaint is that I didn’t sense a strong enough narrative thread. Philbrick has so many people and actions to describe that it was hard sometimes to stay connected to the story.
That said, I learned a lot. Among Philbrick’s themes are the remarkable jealousies in Custer’s officer corps, the clear sense of an impending “last stand” for Sitting Bull’s people given the demise of buffalo herds, and the overall impact of a flamboyant personality such as Custer’s at the helm. While Philbrick includes the narratives of Sitting Bull and many Sioux people, I sensed the story as primarily Custer’s. And even in the middle of the battle, people were beginning to shape how that story would be told.
I was reflecting on what Philbrick said in regard to writing this book, and I was especially struck by his descriptions of studying the battlefield from horseback, getting a sense of how a person of the time would have seen the land.
I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy American history, especially history of the Plains, of Native Americans, or of the nineteenth century.