Posted in Fiction

A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley

Anyone, anyone can break loose from his chains. That courage, no matter how deeply buried, is always waiting to be called out. All it needs is the right coaxing, the right voice to do that coaxing, and it will come roaring like a tiger.

In William Melvin Kelley’s novel A Different Drummer, Tucker Caliban leads the black population of his home town and the home town of his ancestors away from the 1957 south toward the north. The story is told from the perspective of numerous white residents of the town.

Tucker’s courage to do something about his situation is more than a typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. It goes deeper than any political ideology. We don’t know what happens after everyone moves north but we get the idea that life won’t be easy there either. But a step has to be taken and the courage to take that step comes from somewhere in Tucker’s psyche going back generations to the African man who was first brought to the American South.

Kelley allows for some of the white characters and black characters to have a mutual respect for each other. There are white characters that know things have to change.

It’s an interesting question as to why Kelley tells the story from the perspective of white characters. I don’t know an exact answer; however, I’ll take a stab and say it highlights both the complete lack of understanding that many of the white population have toward the black population and it highlights the lack of ability the white folks have to change the situation even if they see it as wrong and needing change. Again, that’s where Tucker comes in.

The power in this novel deserves to be heard – and felt.

Posted in Fiction

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

As for you, nameless, stateless, and selfless, the bullet remains lodged in your head, stuck in the seal between your two minds, as stubbornly wedged as a morsel of gristle and meat between your molars. You wiggle the bullet with your thoughts, but you cannot dislodge it. This bullet with your name on it is embedded where no one can see either it or your name, a thing that would drive you crazy, except that you are apparently already crazy.

How is the nameless spy from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer committed in his sequel The Committed? Is he committed to a revolution? Is he committed to a cause or belief system? Has he committed a crime? Has he committed his thoughts to paper? Is he committed to an asylum?

It’s probably yes to all of the questions. And he remains nameless unless one considers nicknames like Crazy Bastard or Camus to be his real name.

As in the first novel, this spy protagonist maintains two personas due to the nature of spying; however, this being of two minds takes its toll. In addition to the metaphor I quoted above regarding the bullet lodged between his two minds, Nguyen takes the metaphor of having a screw loose to new heights with this screw holding together (or not) the two minds. And to make matters even more bizarre, a section of the novel has one mind narrating to the other (in which the above quotation is included).

This second novel has some of the same humor in it specifically when it comes to the comic relief of the ghosts of those the protagonist has killed. They pop up at inopportune times to heckle him.

The craziness and the humor give sections of the novel a Kurt Vonnegut feel. Vonnegut specifically comes to mind when the nameless spy seems to be talking to a lawyer or a therapist (difficult to tell which and it really doesn’t matter) about what the Eiffel Tower might be shaped like. He concludes “I didn’t create the absurdity in the world! I just see it!”

For anyone who has read The Sympathizer, I highly recommend The Committed; however, read the first novel first.

Posted in Fiction

Roverandom by J. R. R. Tolkien

It’s not uncommon for readers to question an author’s writing when it’s published posthumously. I admit I can be skeptical about such publications, myself. However, in the case of J. R. R. Tolkien’s story Roverandom, things are a little different.

We know that we are unable to literally recreate Tolkien telling his own children a story before they go to bed. But what Tolkien fan wouldn’t at least want to try? It’s this theory that allows me to enjoy this short novel instead of “worrying” about whether this was exactly what Tolkien would have wanted published.

Roverandom is a pet dog that bites the trousers of a cranky wizard and gets turned into a toy. As a toy, the dog is still able to wander around and he becomes lost as he gets taken to the moon to meet the Man-On-The-Moon and have some adventures and then back to earth to swim around in a world under the sea.

In a word (or two), its delightful…and fun.

There’s no real connection in this story to Middle Earth; however, here’s one small potential tie-in:

Roverandom thought he caught a glimpse of the city of the Elves on the green hill beneath the Mountains, a glint of white far away; but Uin dived again so suddenly that he could not be sure. If he was right, he is one of the very few creatures, on two legs or four, who can walk about our own lands and say they have glimpsed that other land, however far away.

Posted in Fiction

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone tells the story of Leo Proudhammer and his rise to acclaim as an African-American actor along with his relationships which include his brother Caleb, Barbara, a white actress and Christopher, a younger black man. The story is told mostly in flashback form after Leo suffers a heart attack.

As with all of Baldwin’s novels, racism in America is always present. Sometimes front and center, sometimes in the background but there is no getting away from it and its effects on the novel’s characters.

Leo deals with it through his art and Caleb deals with it through religion. One of the more fascinating conversations between the two of them compare and contrast art and religion bringing understanding to the disagreements between the brothers.

Given the use of religion throughout history to justify racism, its not surprising that many of Baldwin’s characters have a defiance toward anything religious as Leo does in this novel. At the same time, Baldwin tends to use religious imagery when thinking forward to a potential time when perhaps racism doesn’t have to exist. Whether this time is something literal and physical or something spiritual Baldwin leaves up to the reader but the concept is there:

This groaning board was a heavy weight on the backs of many millions, whose groaning was not heard. Beneath this table, deep in the bowels of the earth, as far away as China, as close as the streets outside, an energy moved and gathered and it would, one day, overturn this table just as surely as the earth turned and the sun rose and set. And: where will you be, when that first trumpet sounds?

Posted in Fiction

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

He would tell a fib in a minute to help his cause. He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.

The first word that comes to mind when describing James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird is “rollicking”. It’s an adventure, it’s non-stop action, and in spite of the deadly serious topic, it’s fun and funny.

McBride fictionalizes the story of abolitionist John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, known as “Onion”, a slave boy pretending to be a girl to protect himself.

The narrator provides the story with a character that will do anything to survive: disguise himself, answer as a rebel or feign great courage in the abolitionist cause. His plan is to lose Brown and his “army” as soon as he can; however, much of the story’s fun comes from the continuous undoing of any opportunity “Onion” finds to ditch Brown’s men in spite of their moral cause.

In John Brown, himself, McBride provides the story with the deeper questions about how far should one take his moral duties. Can someone be so caught up in a cause that the line between morally righteous and lunacy is blurred?

To be clear on it, I weren’t afraid at that moment. In fact, I felt downright comfortable, ’cause for the first time, I knowed I weren’t the only person in the world who knowed the Old Man’s cheese had slid off his biscuit.

So Brown the abolitionist comes off as crazy with his never-wavering righteousness and “Onion” as a morally ambiguous voice of a slave just trying to save his own skin. It all weaves into story-telling magic.

At some point, I am planning on watching the Showtime Limited Series version of this novel. I’m hoping it won’t disappoint.

Posted in Fiction

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

In the memorable first scene in George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, the independent Gwendolyn Harleth gambles with relatives at a roulette wheel while Daniel of the title watches her. They both exchange glances but don’t exchange words. To obtain more money, Gwendolyn pawns a necklace that later Daniel buys and returns to her – still without exchanging words.

They eventually talk and Daniel expresses to Gwendolyn his thoughts about gambling: in order to win someone else has to lose.

So many ideas get crammed beautifully together in this scene – social, political, economical, even theological.

Something about gambling and games of chance align well with Gwendolyn’s character and her socioeconomic status. But its more than her society-defying, rebellious and independent nature. It’s more about how a woman like Gwendolyn has difficulty finding purpose in her life when her society says her only purpose is to be married. Everything else seems left to chance.

Meanwhile, Mordecai stands on a bridge because he has a certainty someone will cross his path to pick up where he has to leave off in his life’s work as a Zionist attempting to establish a homeland for the Jewish people of which he is a member:

The one thing he longed for was to get as far as the river, which he could do but seldom and with difficulty. He yearned with a poet’s yearning for the wide sky, the far-reaching vista of bridges, the tender and fluctuating lights on the water which seems to breathe with a life that can shiver and mourn, be comforted and rejoice.

Mordecai’s path does cross with Daniel Deronda’s and Mordecai’s continuing purpose provides new purpose to Daniel. And Daniel’s world continues to cross paths with Gwendolyn’s. Eliot keeps the reader guessing until the end as to their relationship spinning a nice, long tale of loves – both fulfilled and unrequited, of a world of chance and purpose, of winners and losers.

Posted in Fiction

Just Above My Head by James Baldwin

Hall Montana, the narrator in James Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head, tells this story with all the joy and all the rage I’ve come to expect from Baldwin’s novels. He weaves both of these emotions together in such a way that the reader doesn’t necessarily recognize one or the other but knows that both are embedded deeply into not just Hall but Hall’s family and friends, too.

The novel begins with the death of Hall’s gospel singer brother Arthur which allows Hall to recount the story of both of their lives. The brotherly love between Hall and Arthur is in the forefront of the novel and provides the bulk of the story’s emotional appeal. Secondary, but no less important, are the relationships between Hall and two different women and the relationships between Arthur and two different men. These relationships still powerfully support the bond between the brothers.

As in other Baldwin novels, gospel music lyrics get interspersed throughout the story. While the imagery in these songs adds both depth and atmosphere to the novel, it doesn’t turn it into a religious story. At the same time, Baldwin doesn’t erase the potential impact of the beliefs behind the music. Ultimately, Hall plows through a ton of emotion and a ton of reflection to come to his conclusion:

…how could we sing, how could we know that the music comes from us, we build our bridge into eternity, we are the song we sing?

Posted in Fiction

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The knowledge of good. That half of the primal catastrophe received too little attention. Guilt and grace met together in the phrase despite all that. He could think of himself as a thief sneaking off with an inestimable wealth of meaning and trust, all of it offended and damaged beyond use, except to remind him of the nature of the crime. Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.

In a word, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack is beautiful. It’s proof that not only can she create warm, true, complicated characters of pastors who have been at their vocation for decades, she can also put the same complications, warmth and truth into the “rebel atheist” character.

This is the fourth Gilead novel and Jack Boughton has been a significant side character in the others. Now the reader gets to see more of Jack as he develops a bi-racial relationship with Della Miles. While the town of Gilead, Iowa is as close as the thoughts in Jack’s head, this novel is interesting in that it is physically set in St. Louis with a brief sojourn to Memphis.

The illegal romance between Jack and Della is so slow and subtle. The first roughly eighty pages of the novel is a conversation between the two set in a St. Louis cemetery in the middle of the night (where no one can see them). The contrast between the gravestones in the darkness and their conversation about what might be hope and goodness and life made it fine with me, as the reader, if this was simply the entire novel. With no demands, Della simply loves Jack to the point that Jack, on his own, wants to become a better person which might not be the type of love Jack receives from his father.

Both characters have to deal with their fathers. Both of whom are ministers and, as many fathers of any vocation might, put many expectations on their children. Della has a college degree and teaches high school at a prominent black school in St. Louis. She has been set up by her father, family and church as a model black woman exemplifying what can be accomplished when the black community comes together. Della isn’t always comfortable being this example but until meeting Jack, she goes along with it. Jack, on the other hand, has never fit in with what his father expects of him back in his home town of Gilead.

Their relationship carries with it real dangers from the 1950’s American society in which they live and real disappointments to Della’s family. At this point in the greater Gilead narrative, I don’t think Jack’s family and community are aware of Della. Until now, as readers, we only knew that Della exists because of a picture Jack carries with him. I admit that specifically in the novels Gilead and Home, it seemed that Jack could be interested in the Reverend John Ames’ wife, Lila – the subject of the third Gilead novel titled appropriately Lila. After reading Jack, I think it’s more likely that Jack is simply wondering who in Gilead might be accepting of Della and the relationship they have and Lila, being an outsider herself, could be that person.

In my understanding, Marilynne Robinson has not said how many Gilead novels she plans to write but I hope there’s more.

Posted in Fiction

World and Town by Gish Jen

Who are we, indeed. I cannot say you have convinced me, and if you will forgive me for putting on my scientist hat, I must point out that we humans are prone to superstition. We’re wired to seek cause and effect whether it’s there or not – to make “sense” of things even if the result is nonsense. But never mind. Insofar as your thinking appears to have little to do with the less tenable tenets of Confucianism, and more to do with tradition and hope and humility and coping…I will meet the bone picker this weekend.

The intricate plot of Gish Jen’s novel World and Town doesn’t seem to be anti-religion but it does point out what might be considered inconsistencies, hypocrisies and nonsensical aspects of the way many religion-followers go about their religion. The criticisms also are equal opportunity. More than just one religion come together for critical analysis.

Hattie Kong, the 70 year-old protagonist and scientist, considers herself Unitarian but is a member of a walking group with ladies of varying faiths: an ex-nun, a fundamentalist Christian, an evangelical Christian who is quick to point out she is different from fundamentalists. Hattie gets new neighbors in the form of a Cambodian family who are Buddhist and deals with her Confucian relatives in Hong Kong who want the remains of Hattie’s parents to be brought back to Mainland China to be buried.

While the combining of all these religions can seem a little forced at times, I have to give the author credit for making the characters all fully realized and not just stereotypes used to fit her purposes and ultimately telling a story worth telling.

Posted in Fiction

The Resisters by Gish Jen

While there is all kinds of social commentary in Gish Jen’s dystopian novel The Resisters, for some reason it reminded me of the Saturday morning cartoons I used to watch as a kid. In spite of the seriousness of the ideas presented, Jen uses subtle and not so subtle humor to make the science fiction aspects fun. However, the science fiction is so close to non-fiction that the dystopian parts become anything but fun.

At the center of it all is baseball, a game that had been eliminated from public life but the Surplus (poor people) start an underground league. Gwen, the daughter of Grant, the narrator, has a pitching gift that her father works hard to develop in secrecy.

Meanwhile, the Netted part of society (rich people) decide to bring baseball back as the Official American Pastime – mostly to compete with ChinRussia in the Olympics. Gwen is discovered and tons of blackmail, manipulation, fights for freedom, suspense, betrayal and thrills ensue.

To me, the best humor came in the form of the house belonging to Gwen and her family. With AI pushing full steam ahead, their house talks to them and interrupts their conversations and acts like an unwanted relative.

More than occasionally, Jen throws in fun literary references such as Gwen’s teammates being named Joe March and Warren Peese and the serious references that tie to the the story and themes:

Like have you ever heard of this book, Michael Kohlhaas? – which Coach says is his favorite book because Michael Kohlhaas is just so stubborn! And when I said he sounded like Bartleby the Scrivener, he said that was exactly right, and isn’t it amazing how interesting we find characters who say no? In life we like people who say yes, but in books we like people who say no, he said. Which is just so true, don’t you think? I think maybe he used to be a professor.