NEWS OF THE WORLD (which I have loaned into extinction) by Paulette Jiles is just a good, good story: A little historical, a little psychological; cowboys and Indians; and real history of the world, the entire world right after the Civil (nothing ‘civil’ about it) War. The main character is the elderly Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of two wars, who makes his living reading newspapers, to gathered crowds in small (wild West) northern Texas towns. So that is how we really get the real ‘news of the world.’ The Captain is paid $50 in gold to return a ten-year-old girl to her relatives, after she has spent two years with a tribe of Kiowa. The developing relationship between the two is interesting but not blatantly heart warming, kind of complex. It drove me a little crazy that a ten year old could have lost her mother tongue in a mere two years. BUT, since I was also reading about Acute Childhood Trauma at about the same time, it came to make sense. You see your parents and siblings massacred and, along with abandoning your memory of the horror, it makes sense to abandon your language too. Unspeakable.
Anyway, lots of adventure, fairly complex characters, a shattering view of post war—very young—Texas, and—of course—news of the world. After carefully spinning out a somewhat unpredictable tale. Jiles seems to have rushed her ending a bit, tied it up in too neat a packet. Still, a very good read.
BEFORE WE WERE YOURS, by Lisa Wingate is a novel based on the real true horrifying story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage stocked with kidnapped children from poor families. I hooked into the novel at its very beginning: a counter culture-type family living on a houseboat on the Mississippi, right outside Memphis. The scent of Mark Twain and early Cormac McCarthy and my riverbank childhood immediately attached me to the novel. The story’s main narrator is the oldest of the five siblings stolen from the riverside. The story interweaves between two generations, but its meat is in the 1930’s with the tough oldest girl trying to keep her brothers and sisters together in a nightmare.
It can be said that the novel examines family, class, crime, coincidence, as well as mystery brought to a satisfying and Deep South conclusion.
AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones, a good story by another good African American woman writer. At one time Obama said this was his favorite novel. (We need to always remember that, in our lifetime, we had a president who read books.). It is hard not to think that Jones was influenced by Baldwin’s BEALE STREET when the plot revolves around a loving husband falsely accused of rape and, subsequently, imprisoned. There are three main characters, two men who have been friends, and the woman, a love triangle. The story is told in their voices and the setting is primarily middle class ‘new South’ Atlanta. Though there are three story tellers, there are many stories and they are stories that only black Americans could tell. Jones is not a great writer, but her attention to detail, the care and concern she gives in creating her characters is wonderful.
THERE THERE by Tommy Orange is a Native American novel of a different bent, a breathlessly plotted story of the Native American in the city. Though the book would be worth a read if only for the eleven-page prologue. The narrative moves almost seamlessly through a number of time periods, all of them leading up to the Big Oakland Pow Wow. The twelve characters exist sometimes nearly side-by-side and sometimes a generation apart. The writing is powerful, poetic, angry, depressed, defiant, occasionally funny, and always real. I like the Marlon James review on the book cover: “THERE THERE drops on us like a thunderclap; the big, booming, explosive sound of twenty-first-century literature finally announcing itself. Essential.” There, that’s pretty big.
HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund. This first novel, set primarily in the woods of Minnesota, has a ‘shut down’ narrator slowly reeling out an eerie story set in her adolescent past. To make the reader care about the removed (chilly?) narrator took quite a measure of skill, but the reader is pulled along by a sense of tragic foreboding. Protagonist Linda and her parents are the sole holdouts of what had been a hippie commune hidden in the woods. A mother, her sweet young son and sometimes the older dad settle in a modern cabin on the lake near the abandoned commune. They both attract and repel Linda, they are mysterious; their summer on her lake wrap the teenager, as helplessly as a small fly, into their web. Fridlund descriptions of place and character are exquisite. A scary, sad, ‘coming of age’ story, both bleak and shimmering.
THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez. My sister, Gretchen, deeply loved this novel, which I saw more as a meditation. A meditation on grief, gender, the craft of teaching, the art of writing. An interesting book, held together by a Great Dane, a dog the reader comes to love, cheer for, age with, and let go. The writing is skillful and wise, sometimes funny, always with an underpinning of loneliness. I never underline in a book, but expect to return to THE FRIEND with a pencil. So much of what Nunez says rings so true (& is so well phrased). Though I found the book at my sister’s recommendation, it seems it won the National Book Award and was published only in 2018.
LESS by Andrew Sean Greer is another personal ‘find’ that was already ‘found,’ having won the Pulitzer. I recall reading several reviews of this novel about a hapless, clueless minor writer avoiding his beloved boyfriend’s wedding by setting himself on a kind of worldwide book tour. Reading the reviews convinced me that I didn’t want to read the novel, but picked it up and leafed through it at Kramer’s Bookstore and ended up buying it. Good Thing! Less is one of the most original characters I’ve read in memory: engaging, foolish, lucky, cursed, guileless, honest. I laughed a lot and thought the ‘travelogue’ was just wonderful. Love and literature and time and memory flow through the story and by the book’s end, I just didn’t want to let LESS go. He was more.