Saturday, August 22, 2015

Catching Up With Summer Reading

It has been a while since my last review and there has been a lot of books read since then. Instead of doing individual reviews, below is a quick blitz of some of the really remarkable releases this summer.

Sara Taylor's The Shore ranks up there with A Little Life for one of the most ambitious and fascinated novels of 2015. Taking place on a series of islands on the Virginian coast, Taylor's novel intertwines the lives of several different characters over several hundred years who struggle through colonial assimilation, economic depravity, sexual violence, and population wiping apocalypse. The Shore has drawn some comparison to A Visit from the Goon Squad, in its effort to use experimental structure to combine desperate stories into a cohesive novel and I would say that it actually does a more effective job than Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer winning book (although that sentiment may not be shared by most). Nonetheless, for someone to pull off this feat, or even be compared to Goon Squad, in her first novel, is quite remarkable.

Matthew Thomas received a huge advance for his first book We Are Not Ourselves and its release was highly anticipated in 2014 as a likely literary award winner. However, when the numerous Top Ten lists began coming out at the end of the year, Thomas' epic novel was glaringly missing. Award season offered no solace either. So when I picked up the audiobook to listen, I figured that there would be something disappointing about the novel that had turned off the literary establishment. Thomas' tale of the Leary family's struggle through the malaise of family life and illness at the end of the Twentieth Century is a slow and at times too detailed story. There were moments where I felt Thomas needed a stronger editor who could cull some of the unnecessary description. That said, there was a deep and tranquil beauty to the story. There is a sadness that permeates throughout the novel, as each of the main characters is pulled in different directions in their effort to achieve the American Dream and almost always misjudge what should be done. We are left with a family filled with regret and it is that mood that drives this story. Thomas may not have produced the Great American Novel, but he has certainly offered a story that will linger with the reader's soul.

The book of the summer without question is Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his son, Coates delivers a powerful account of the fear and concern he has for his son's safety in an American society that has long treated 'black bodies' as entities to be subjugated, to be beaten, to be brutalized, to be murdered. Written in the aftermath of the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, that the release of Coates' book a year later has also surrounded itself with numerous police killings of African American men and women speaks to the need for a deep conversation (and agitation) among Americans (and Canadians) about why black bodies are so easily disposed of by those expected to secure safety in society. There is a reason this is the "It" book of the year and one that should be picked up by anyone who wants to tear down the racism that permeates our society.

T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come has also received significant buzz. Taking place in Northern California, Boyle offers a multi-perspective novel of a family torn apart by mental illness and anti-authoritarian feelings. Driving the story in many ways are the anti-government sentiments of several of the characters who in one way or another espouse a "free man on the land" ideology that questions the legitimate authority of the state. Similar themes were explored in last year's critically acclaimed Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. I have to say that after reading Coates' book, I found little sympathy or affinity to a story of a young white man and woman whose experience of state oppression pales in comparison to those experienced by millions of African Americans. Although Boyle certainly is a powerful writer, I kept on thinking to myself why these stories of white mountain men deserved so much attention, and asking myself what it says about white privilege that they receive so much attention. A work of literature does not have answer the big questions of the day, but when they try to ask them and offer perspective, I think it is fair to also ask why certain people are raised to the forefront of antagonist and why certain are missing.

After these quite heavy books, my last plug is going to be for an absolutely amazing YA novel by Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper. Our protagonist is a teenage Puerto Rican young woman, Sierra, who discovers a powerful magic that her family possesses, being able to use murals and paintings to harness the powers of spirits. Adding to the shock of this discovery is the fact that many of her family friends who share this power have been disappearing or being killed up. Sierra is forced to learn how to harness this power and find out why someone is targeting the Shadowshapers. This book was so much fun and filled with subtle subversive and anti-racist sentiments. If you have a teenager in your life or enjoy YA, pick up Older's book, cuz it's awesome.

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