Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka*****

GirlinSnow

“’You can only see fifty-nine percent of the moon from the earth’s surface. No matter where you go, in the entire world, you’ll only see the same face. That fifty-nine percent.’
“‘Why are you telling me this?’
“’I’m just saying. We know this fact, but it doesn’t stop us from staring.’”

Half a century ago, a young writer named Harper Lee took the literary world by storm with To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that centered itself on justice, on a child trying to do the right thing, and on a strange, misunderstood fellow named Boo Radley.

Today the literary world meets wunderkind Danya Kukafka. Get used to the name, because I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot of it. Her story also revolves around misunderstood characters with dark pasts, and a small town’s often misdirected quest to see justice done and safety restored.

Thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley for inviting me to read and review in exchange for this honest review. I’ve read and reviewed a lot of galleys this summer, but right now this is the only one I want to talk about.

So back to our story. We have three narratives, all from unhappy characters, all of them watching, watching, watching. Our protagonist is Cameron Whitley, a troubled, “Tangled” adolescent that has spent his evenings secretly following a popular, attractive classmate named Lucinda. He watches her through the windows of her house. He stares at her in her bedroom, and he does other things, too. Cameron has a troubled past, his father gone now after a storm of controversy destroyed his reputation and left his family hanging in tatters. And now that Lucinda is dead, the investigators have to look hard at Cameron. We do, too. We can see that Cameron is grieving, but of course, people often grieve the people they have killed. Grief doesn’t always denote innocence.

“Cameron stood outside Maplewood Memorial and wondered how many bodies it held that did not belong to Lucinda. How many blue, unbending thumbs. How many jellied hearts.”

As the story proceeds, we hear a third person omniscient narrative of Cameron, though it doesn’t choose to tell us everything. Not yet. We also hear two alternate narratives, those of Jade, Cameron’s classmate, and of Russ, the cop that was Cameron’s father’s partner before things unraveled.

Jade is friendless and frustrated, an overweight teen with iffy social skills, unhappy in love. Her home life is disastrous, her alcoholic mother monstrously abusive. Jade could be out of that house in a New York minute if she’d out her mother, but instead she turns her anger toward herself. After all, she provokes her mother. The bruises, the cuts, the blackened eye all signs that she has pushed her mom too far.

And so, bereft of healthier peer relationships, Jade watches Cameron watch Lucinda. She doesn’t have to leave home to do it; she has a box seat, so to speak, at her bedroom window. Standing there and looking down on a good clear night, she can see Cameron sequestered behind the bushes or trees, and she can see Lucinda, who doesn’t seem to know what curtains and window blinds are for. Ultimately Jade befriends Cameron, who is frankly afraid to trust her. And he may be right.
Russ is the third main character whose narrative we follow. As a child, he always thought it would be awesome to carry a gun and put handcuffs on bad guys:

“He memorized the Mirandas…playing with a toy cop car on the back porch…Russ had a lisp as a kid. You have the wight to wemain siwent.”

So his dream has come true; why isn’t he a happier man? Again and again we see the ugly things Russ does and the ugly reasons he does them, but just as it appears he’s going to become a stereotypic character, Kukafka adds nuance and ambiguity, and we see that underneath that swinish exterior is the heart of…no, not a lion. He’s really not that great a guy. But we see his confusion, his dilemmas, the aspects of his “bruised yellow past” that motivate him. He isn’t a hero, but he is capable of loving, and of doing good. And he doesn’t want to frame a kid for Lucinda’s murder, especially not his partner’s kid. He wants to know the truth.

Interesting side characters are Russ’s wife, Ines, and Ines’s brother Ivan, the school custodian that is caught in the crosshairs of the investigation.

Ultimately, though, the story is about Cameron, and Kukafka’s electrifying prose makes my thoughts roll back and forth like a couple dozen tennis balls left on deck when the ship hits choppy seas. Poor Cameron! He didn’t do this…and then, whoa, Cameron is seriously creepy here. Maybe he actually did it. I spend much of my time trying to decipher how deeply troubled this lad is—those of us in education and other fields that work with teenagers would undoubtedly deem him an ‘at-risk’ child—and how far he has gone.

Is Cameron the Boo Radley of 2017, misunderstood and falsely vilified; or is he a Gary Gilmore, a John Wayne Gacy?

Clearly, I’m not going to tell you. That would ruin it for you. The one thing I will say is that the ending is not left ambiguous. This isn’t the sort of book you throw across the room when you’ve read the last page.

In addition, know that there is plenty of edgy material here. Those considering offering this book to a teen as summer reading may wish to read it themselves before passing it on. I would cheerfully have handed it to my own teens, but your standards and mine may differ.

If you can read this book free or at a reduced price, lucky you. If you have to pay full freight: do it. Do it. Do it. It’s for sale today.

Policing the Black Man, Angela Davis, ed.*****

PolicingtheBlackManA hard look at the American penal system–from cops, to court, to prison–is past due, and within this scholarly but crystal-clear series of essays, the broken justice system that still rules unequally over all inside USA borders is viewed under a bright light. Isn’t it about time? Thank you to Doubleday and Net Galley for the DRC. It’s for sale, and anyone with an interest in seeing change should read it. Caucasian readers that still can’t figure out why so many African-Americans are so upset should buy this book at full price, and they should read it twice. If you read this collection and still don’t understand why most Civil Rights advocates are calling out that Black Lives Matter, it likely means you didn’t want to know.  But bring your literacy skills when you come; well documented and flawless in both reason and presentation, it’s not a book that individuals without college-ready reading skills will be able to master.

The most horrifying aspect of American policing and prosecution is the way that Black boys are targeted. Sometimes only 10 or 12 years of age, they find themselves in the crosshairs of suspicion and implicit bias no matter what they do. Of course, the presumption that someone is violent, is dangerous, is guilty is never acceptable, and men and women all over the USA have seen it happen. However, most cultures hold their children dearest, and so what happens when every African-American boy grows up knowing that cops will assume he has done something wrong because he has stopped on the street corner, or not stopped; walked too slowly, or too quickly; looked away, or looked around down; what happens when an entire subset of the US population knows that he was essentially outlawed from the cradle?

Those that care about justice won’t want to read this collection while eating, and you won’t want to read it at bedtime, either. How do you swallow? How do you fall asleep when what you want to do is hit a wall? This reviewer’s own family is racially mixed, and when I consider the easy good humor of the Black men in my family, I wonder how they do it. And yet I know the answer: you can’t be angry seven days a week or your life is already over. They face American racism with fatalistic humor and get on with their lives.

That shouldn’t be necessary.

These essays each zero in one particular area of policing. Implicit bias is addressed, as is the failure of the US government to even admit that a problem exists. The Supreme Court has adopted the ivory-tower position that American justice is colorblind, centuries of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. There is no database at all regarding the deaths of Black boys and men by cops, and no requirement that anyone keep track. Does it make a difference if the prosecutor is Black? There’s no data. None.

And did you know that 95% of the people charged with a crime plead guilty?  Prosecutors hold so much power that often a completely innocent person can be persuaded not to risk having an extra charge, and extra time, tacked on. Prosecutors get to decide whether a crime should be pursued as a state crime, which has far more lenient implications, or as a felony. Cops are out in the public eye—and thank goodness they are—but prosecutors do things quietly, often behind closed doors.

Davis’s own article alone is worth the purchase price of this collection, but once you have it in your hands, you will want to read the whole thing; and you should. You should do it, and then you should become involved. Protest in the way you are able, but don’t  sit idly by and watch. Protest, because Black Lives Matter, and until this country admits that it has a race problem, how can any of us breathe?

Three minutes to Doomsday, by Joe Navarro***

threeminutestodoomsday“Nothing’s ever over till the fat lady sings.”

Trite? Yes. Abrasive? Absolutely!  Sexist? All the damn time. Profane? Seriously profane, and not in a way that some of us might find amusing. And yet, this memoir has a strangely fascinating aspect as well.  It combines two stories, the primary one an espionage case in which the author plays the primary role, and a secondary one, the implosion of the author’s personality and marriage. It’s not fun reading, but after a certain point, there’s no turning away from it either. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Navarro is a hot-shot young FBI agent in 1988, and it is while conducting what is expected to be a fairly routine interview that he notes a “tell” from former US soldier Rod Ramsey. It becomes the basis of an espionage case that goes much deeper than anyone anticipated. Navarro uses his expertise in nonverbal communication to tell what Ramsey is feeling during the various phases of his interviews, and he also uses it to control and manipulate Ramsey into cooperating with the investigation. Ramsey is the one soul on this planet with fewer friends than Navarro, and so Navarro spends years making Ramsey believe that he himself is that friend, practically family. He does it so he can have this kid busted and send him away for a really long time.

Navarro knows a lot about reading and controlling others nonverbally, but he doesn’t know a thing about building a family life or about how to make friends, and it’s clear he knows this, yet he can’t help himself. He tells us that an agent he wants to assist him tells a supervisor that she would prefer to work with someone else, and specifically, with anyone, anyone, anyone else but him. A number of other people echo this, and yet his personality continues on its hell-bent-for-leather downhill trajectory.

While he continues his self-aggrandizement with a hearty side-serving of brazen braggadocio, Navarro recounts again and again how much he hates the office staff at work, little people that are getting in his way by attempting to do their jobs. Clearly they just don’t understand how very important he is, but that’s okay, because he is letting the world know now.  Regarding the office manager that dares remind him of small requirements like changing the oil in his official vehicle, he uses a tired aphorism:

“Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It annoys the pig and it wastes your time.”

He lets us know that he swore at, patronized, and berated her constantly, and lest we take his admissions as a sign of penitence, he also lets us know that he hates her still. He has changed her name for obvious legal reasons, but he hasn’t changed his obnoxious attitude or gained a speck of humility.

Add to this the fact that, though this case is terrific book material, the guy isn’t much of a writer. Clichés abound, and very basic principles of narrative writing are either never learned or disregarded. He starts chapters with lists, apparently too busy and important to transform these into paragraphs. I’m not all that sure he ever edited his work (because he might have noticed his overuse of parenthesis) and I’m not sure he permitted anyone else to do so either (because surely they would have come to his rescue).

Still, it’s an interesting story. Whereas someone else could no doubt do a finer job of writing this thing, it’s undeniably compelling. I recommend this memoir to those that enjoy espionage thrillers and true crime stories, but don’t give up the full sticker price. Read it for free or cheap, and save your serious dollars for serious writers.