It’s the beginning of May and I’ve read one great book (Draw Your Weapons), a few not well-written but fascinating non-fiction books (The Cooking Gene and Kaffir Boy), and a pretty decent mystery novel (Killer Choice).
Books highlighted marked ** are highly recommended. Links will open my review on the Goodread website.
Dave Eggers’ novel What is the What is an insightful, well-written, oddly structured and, overly-long story of one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan and his journey from Africa to Atlanta.
The true story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is unbelievable. Thousands of boys were displaced or orphaned between 1993 and 2005 during a Civil War in Sudan. Their journey across Africa to get to refugee camps has been told in countless newspaper articles as well as in popular entertainment.
What is the What tells one Boy’s story through the voice of Valentino Achak Deng, a real Lost Boy. The idea of using a real person to tell a novelized version of an autobiography is a choice that Eggers uses very effectively, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The book really feels like Valentino is telling the story.
The way the story comes about is odd, though. It begins in the present as Valentino is in the midst of being robbed in his Atlanta apartment. He begins to tell his story as if he is talking out loud to his assailants. It’s an internal dialogue discussing his past that he addresses to people he meets throughout the book in his present-day situation. The switch between current events and the events of his childhood in war-torn Africa is an effective narrative tool, even as it’s unclear to whom he is directing his internal dialogue.
While the story and the main character are interesting, this book is easily 100 pages too long. It rambles around here and there with unnecessary details. Though the book is told by a young man about his childhood, since the events are generally true, some contextual explanations would have strengthened the emotional impact. The titular story of What is the What is told by Valentino’s father relatively early in the book and briefly mentioned a couple times. By the end, where Valentino is having a soul-searching moment, the book fails to tie up the What is the What of the title. Just a bothersome loose end.
When the English Fall is a quiet, spiritual book about remaining peaceful, true, and honorable in an increasingly violent and busy world.
The plot, narrated by Lancaster County farmer Jacob, is about a community of Amish, who with the exception of a few modern conveniences, live off the grid. A solar storm knocks out power in the nearby town and beyond. As the residents of the city, who the Amish refer to as the English, begin to starve, they flock to the country, to the Amish, and there’s a struggle as the community to determines how to proceed.
David William’s, himself an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, presents a man and a community guided by faith and struggling to find the right answers in the modern world. Jacob writes about his struggle with understanding his place saying a great danger to the souls of the Amish is “a pride than can come when we set ourselves apart to be servants, but then assume that our servanthood makes us better.” Beautiful and tough questions fill this book, which is a joy to read.
Michael W. Twitty sets off on a journey to discover the roots of African-American cuisine by tracing his own family history and by examining the more general history of black Americans and the slave trade. Perhaps in the hands of a more skilled writer (or with the attention of a conscientious and concise editor) this story could have been streamlined and more effective. As it is, the book is marked by Twitty’s knowledge and experience, his exuberance and enthusiasm, and humor and humanity, but overall, the book is a slog.
It’s at its best when Twitty is telling the story of his family or when he is focusing on food. It gets lost in trying to add to much about the history of the slave trade, or other historical tidbits, in ways that bog down the story rather than elaborate on the connections. Sadly, the lack of narrative organization makes for messy reading.
Still, Twitty is really on to something about what we’re missing about roots of what we call Southern Cuisine or Southern Cooking (Twitty calls it Afroculinaria, which is fantastic!). He has a lot of great information on the abilities and impact of slave cooks and insight on why we don’t know this and why we should. He talks about the deep bonds of families and their food traditions and the community that arises from sharing food and food history. His enthusiasm and seriousness in finding answers and in sharing with others is apparent on every page. I wish this was a better book because I want to put Twitty and his thinking in people’s hands.
Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is about a family living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as they navigate grief through present racial tensions and the ghosts of past racial injustice. Unfortunately, though pieces of the book are beautifully written and thought-provoking, the entire package never comes together.
The story is mostly told by the young mother Leonie and her just-turned-13-year-old son Jojo. Leoni is an extremely unlikable character who is most interested in herself, getting high, and getting back with her husband who is about to get out of prison. Jojo is very aware of his mother’s shortcomings and is eager to grow up quickly to take care his toddler sister Kayla and to be a man about the house for his Grandparents in the house where they all live together.
The book is populated by ghosts who interact with the characters. Leonie sees her dead brother, Given who was “killed in a hunting accident” the modern southern euphemism for murdered in cold blood. Jojo sees the ghost of a young man his grandfather met in the Parchman Penitentiary and who is back looking for answers. The ghosts are obvious metaphors for persisting systemic racism, a metaphor that collapses on itself in the final pages.
What makes this book worth reading is the ideas that Ward is trying to discuss through a literary lens. There is a lot to think about in this book as the past weighs on a modern family like a shroud. However, the technique of different voices is threadbare as all three points of view (one of the ghosts gets a couple chapters) all sound like they came from the same head. All three narrators speak exquisitely considering Leonie is a high school dropout, and Jojo and the ghost are young boys. That’s nit-picky, but the structural defects drag down an otherwise interesting take on the impact of racism.
Eat Only When You’re Hungry, by Lindsay Hunter, is a sly story about addiction couched in a Father’s search for his missing, drug-addicted son. The search for the son allows the father to examine his own weaknesses. Filled with observations that could be used as the start of comedy routine (“did you ever notice that…”) in this context are serious questions about the lives we lead. A surprisingly sweet and introspective book.
View all my reviews“>Eat Only When You’re Hungry – Lindsey Hunter (Fiction)
Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds can’t decide if it wants to be a book about psychology or a book about the friendship of two ground-breaking psychologists. In the end, it fails on both fronts.
The Undoing Project begins by discussing recruiting techniques of an NBA team and how they learned to embrace data over feelings in choosing players. This was essentially what one of Lewis’s previous book’s, Money Ball, discussed (that book was about baseball). The NBA chapter is fine, but the book quickly turns away from applied psychology to the history of the two psychologists who paved the way for such thinking. The book uneasily sways between the friendship of the two Israeli scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and the groundbreaking work they did.
In the process, the friendship isn’t fully fleshed out, with both Kahneman and Tversky coming off pretty flat. The story of their friendship, especially in the early part of the book isn’t presented clearly, and frankly, as written, it’s not that interesting. As for their theories, the psychology comes off not as fully-explained as the opening chapter suggests the book would provide. Though there are a lot of interesting tidbits about their work, including the fascinating questions used in their research, the actual science is only skimmed over.
If the only thing you ever read about Kahneman and Tversky’s work was in this book, you would never know how significant their theories have been. You would never know Kahneman would go on to win the Nobel Prize…alone. Lewis tackles a lot in this book, but by trying to make a simple story, he short-changes his subjects and his readers.
7. Ghosts of the Tsunmi: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone – Richard Lloyd Perry (Non-Fiction)
8. Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Fiction)
9. Draw Your Weapons – Sarah Sentilles (Non-Fiction)**
10. American Pastoral – Philip Roth (Fiction)
11. Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa – Mark Mathaabane (Non-Fiction)
12. Killer Choice – Thomas Hunt (Fiction – Mystery/Thriller)
13. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (Non-Fiction/Memoir)
14. Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn (Fiction)
15. Broken River – J.Robert Lennon (Fiction)
16. Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack – Dutcher, Jim and Jamie Dutcher (Non-Fiction)