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

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*****

Oh hell yes. Congratulations to Jesmyn Ward for making the long list of the #NationalBookAward for 2017.

Seattle Book Mama

SingUnburiedI had never read Ward’s work before, and now that I have I will follow her anywhere. Sing Unburied, Sing is a literary masterpiece, and one that fits the time in which we live. It opens up all sorts of thorny questions for examination, but like most thorns, it stings. I received my copy free and early courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley. This title is available to the public now.

Jojo and Kayla have been raised by their grandparents in rural Mississippi; Mam and Pop are their source of love and stability. Leonie, the mother they call by her first name as if she were a sister, drifts in and out, using copious amounts of meth and other drugs. Michael, the children’s Caucasian father, is being released from Parchman, the notorious prison where he has been sent after having killed Leonie’s brother, Given. Given comes to her when she’s…

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If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

The Weight of this World, by David Joy*****

theweightoftheworldDavid Joy is a writer that keeps it real, and that’s what made me lurch forward in my desk chair and grab my mouse when I saw his second novel was done.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This title will be available to the public March 7, 2017. Those that cherish strong fiction should buy it and read it.

The setting is Little Canada, North Carolina, a wide place in the road in the middle of nowhere. The family unit, such as it is, consists of April—the most unwilling of mothers—along with her son Thad, and his best friend, Aiden McCall, who shares the trailer at the rear of April’s property with Thad. The plot is centered on the inadvertent death of the local meth dealer, and a small fortune that is unexpectedly left in the custody of Thad and Aiden.

They are not stellar decision makers.  In fact, some of the time they seem as if they are half feral.

Aiden came to live with Thad when he was on the run from the law, young and desperate. Thad offered him shelter, and that was more than anyone else had ever done. In fact,

 

“Nothing about this place had changed in all of Aiden McCall’s life, and maybe that’s why he’d come to hate it so badly. Everything was exactly as it had always been, the haves having and the have-nots starving to damn death.”

 

Thad, unfortunately, is the last person in this world anyone should become overly attached to. Between his unloving childhood, his time in Afghanistan and the meth he’s used to self-medicate since then, he’s more than half crazy more than half the time. It’s just him, Aiden and his dog, a crossbreed named Loretta Lynn. But things get out of hand, and the bits of baling wire and rusty screws that were barely holding his poor savaged brain together come undone:

 

“Something broke inside him then. His mind retreated to a place more familiar. There was a sergeant who told Thad the infantry were the hands of God, and that idea made sense to Thad because it was no different from what he had heard all his life growing up in church. The old-timers said some prayers needed feet. But there was evil in this world that had to be strangled. And so it wasn’t just a matter of giving those prayers legs. Sometimes a prayer needed hands just the same.”

 

As you can see, it’s gritty prose, and it features hardscrabble characters that are not entirely lovable. And so, reader, if you are one that needs a character you can fall in love with, you may have to look elsewhere. Some reviewers have found the story too harsh for their liking, and so to some degree it’s a matter of taste.

But I can tell you this: the settings here are stark and immediate, and the characters are well drawn and completely believable. I appreciate a story that fits the time in which we live, one in which young people have a rough time becoming independent due to economic woes and  the rampant drug addiction that seems to live in the shadow of every economic downturn. I believe Aiden and Thad, and I believe Thad’s mother April as well, a woman that only became a mother because someone spit on her as she came out of an abortion clinic. This is a story that resonates, and nobody can tell it like David Joy does.

Highly recommended!

Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke *****

This book is the first in a twenty-book series. Brilliantly written, it introduces the reader to Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a complex, flawed, fascinating character. Other reviewers say that what is not said is as important as what is. The deft skill exemplified here is a real pleasure to witness, and I kept disturbing my husband, who reads almost exclusively nonfiction and was reading an IT printout, to tell him things I noticed. I could NOT keep it to myself, I was so impressed. (If you have seen any of my other reviews,you know that this is no small thing.)

The protagonist/narrator frustrates us again and again with his compulsions. We may even say right out loud, “NO! Don’t go into the bar!” but he trots right on in. We want to say, Go get the girlfriend and say you are sorry. But instead, he goes and does something else that will get him into trouble.

I generally have no patience at all for the suspense that is similar to the slasher movies we saw as teens, where you sat on the edge of the theatre seat and cried, “Don’t go in the old, dark house!” and the sweet little couple said, “Oh, maybe we can get out of the rain! Doesn’t look as if anyone has lived here in a long time.” And in they go.

So what makes this so good? Why do I still care about this character, after he screws things up twenty different ways? Why do I even like him?

I think I like the dignity the writer bestows upon his protagonist, and I also like the fact that he is flawed and torn, as real people are. I suspect that the writer either struggles with alcoholic urges himself, or is very, very close to someone else who does. Again, I have read so many novels in which alcoholism is a key plot point that I swore off them, quitting alcohol stories forever, but this writer makes it seem as brand new as every individual person you meet is.

We have to like this protagonist, not for what he thinks, but for what he does. He cannot afford something very important, (trying to avoid a spoiler), but ends up borrowing money from the bank to avoid having someone close to him carry his debt when they voluntarily pony up. There are NO ADVERBS in this book. None are needed. The writer lets us know how things are said and done in more skillful ways.

It is the ways that the protagonist responds to real people, and who he chooses to help, that ultimately make me really, really like him.

I will admit I also appreciate the palpable taste of the setting. I like local authors (USA, Pacific NW) for the familiarity, but I like Burke for the sense of a place I have never been, and may never go. I have always been leery of traveling in the deep south. My family is multi-racial, and even today, I am not sure I could drive comfortably through the backwaters of Louisiana and Mississippi with my African-American son, my Japanese husband, and our biracial daughter. With Burke there, I don’t really need to; I feel as if I am in the Gulf Coast part of Louisiana (and for awhile, Mississippi) as he describes them.

My first taste of this writer’s work came out of sequence, when my daughter came home with a freebie from the shelf at school, a much later book in the series. I was sufficiently impressed to put his first books on my wish list. Now that I have read this remarkable novel, my next task is to go back and get the rest of them, a little at a time.

Edgy, brutal, and painful in places; not for the faint of heart, but unmatchable in quality; a fascinating read.