February 2019


So I was actually totally lying last week when I said I hadn’t read any of the Morning News Tournament of Books 2019 books other than Washington Black and The Golden State… I think this slipped my mind because when I looked at the shortlist, none of the books I LOVED last year were on it. I’ve actually already read Call Me Zebra, The Overstory, and The Parking Lot Attendant. So, as it happens Census, by Jesse Ball, is the sixth book I’ve read from the short list, which I actually feel pretty good about. Am I going to get the other 12 read before the tournament starts? Um. Unlikely…

Okay, so. Census is a really interesting book. It’s a really different book. It’s a really weird book. Sometimes this totally works for me, see Fever Dream and Supernatural Enhancements. This didn’t really work for me. Somehow it took me forever to read, but I also feel like I wasn’t that into it so I definitely missed things. I think you really have to be willing to read this book slowly, and to be willing to read a book that will give you no answers.

Summarizing Census is rather difficult. But essentially, the plot is that a father is dying and he’s decided that the thing to do is join the census and travel with his son, who has Down Syndrome, conducting the census. But, the world that they are traveling in doesn’t exactly seem to be our world, it’s hard to say if it’s post apocalyptic or if it’s just different. But this guy isn’t like a US census worker. What he is, is never fully explained. The census is described a bit more, here’s a piece:

Not, where were your parents born – but, what is the meaning of a national boundary? When your parents crossed such a thing to come here – how did it change them? Why did they do it? Who were those people who left the place that they came from – fearful, hopeful, full of a joy long since extinguished, perhaps replaced with fresh joy, perhaps not – who were they, and how, in all the wild mystery of the earth and its citizens, could they  have come to be the people now crushed by age, waiting fitfully in the waters of death’s first sleep?

So… yeah. Not what I was thinking when I heard the dad conducts the census.

At the start of the book there’s a note from Ball that he had a younger brother with Down Syndrome who he loved, and who passed away, and he always wanted to write a book about him. Rather than write a typically book (ie, a grief memoir), he decided to write a “hollow” book (as he puts it) with his brother at the center. I like grief memoirs for the most part, I identify with grief memoirs, and so that’s probably my favorite thing about this book. But, to me the book did feel a bit hollow, and nothing really filled it up. There’s no world building here.

Some of the book is beautiful and thought provoking (okay most of it probably is, if you’re really willing to sit with this book):

As we drove that night, I told my son about the loneliness that sometimes afflicts people who are alone. Meanwhile, I explained, some other people are just as alone, but never become lonely. How can that be?

There is a lot of this type of musing. Some of it made me muse, some of it made me think WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON IN THIS BOOK??? So… basically if you like books that challenge you, books that are essentially the opposite of everything you find in typical book, you might like this one. I think I failed at reading Census. But part of me feels like it was very much me and not the book’s fault. At the same time, I won’t be recommending this to anyone.

I also read the exact opposite this week, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. Which, being a historical sort of mystery novel (nothing that mysterious ever happens, but I guess crimes get solved), has a plot which completely lets you in. It’s the third book in Amy Stewart’s Constance Kopp series, which I have written about before.

Currently reading: Conversations with Friends.

So I technically returned from vacation late Wednesday, but it’s taken me until now to kind of get back to east coast time and to sit down and let you know what all I read on vacation.

In case you don’t follow it, The Morning New Tournament of Books (The Rooster) released the short list of books that will be in the tournament for 2019, so I’ve begun trying to read at least half of them before the tournament starts. I’m still smarting over the fact that An American Marriage didn’t make it into the tournament, but I’m putting that aside since it means that I have read literally none of the 16 books in this year’s tournament.

So, first up on vacation was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. I took this one on vacation because it sounded like it might not be too heavy, which since the main character is a slave, should tell you how heavy a lot of the books in the tournament are this year… Washington Black (Wash) is an eleven year old boy who is a slave on a Barbados plantation. The master is cruel, but it turns out that his brother is an abolitionist and a scientist. He ‘borrows’ Wash from his brother to be his assistant with getting a flying machine to work — and in the process teaches him to read, a little about science, and discovers that Wash has a gift for drawing.

The book is not exactly light hearted, but it really is an adventure story that spans the globe — after a man is killed, a price is on Wash’s head, and he and the brother travel to America, to the Arctic, and ultimately London and Morocco also play a role.

Wash is a fabulous narrator, and completely sucks you into his world, and he’s apparently telling the story later so he has a little more insight than one expects from an eleven year old:

I could not have described him so then, but [the master’s cousin] was merely a man of his class, nothing more. His great passions were not passions but distractions; one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.

I think I mostly bookmarked that as a note of how to not live your life, but what an interesting comment on an Englishman at the time that the sun had not yet begun to set on the British Empire.

On a similar note, Wash considers the life of a slave hunter:

He was a wretched man… He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senseless cruelty. … he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.

How easy it is, to waste a life.

How true. Both of the quotes I’ve picked focus on the white men in the story, which isn’t quite right, although a lot of this novel is focused on how each of these men are different, and yet how each fails to see Wash’s full humanity. Wash really comes into his own in the end however, and stops being an eleven year old who is completely controlled by the world he lives in.

I read this entire book in one sitting, so I can definitely recommend it. It reminds me a bit of The Underground Railroad, because the flying machine and some of the science give it a bit of a sense of the fantastical (most slaves did not escape slavery in this exciting manner, they lived and died as slaves) although there’s no magical realism here.

Next I read The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling which I also enjoyed. The story is set in California and takes place over ten days. The main character, Daphne is a young mother to Honey a 16 month old. She works for an Islamic Institute affiliated with a university in San Francisco. Although she herself is not Muslim, she speaks Turkish and is married to a Turkish man, who was intimidated into giving up his green card and through a ‘click of the mouse’ error has so far been unable to get another — resulting in their 8 month separation. Daphne basically has a nervous breakdown on Day 1, and spends the next ten days in a fictional high desert town where she meets secessionist activists (who want the northern part of California to leave the Southern part) and an elderly woman named Alice who is trying to visit the camp where her long dead husband worked during WWII.

I spent a good chunk of the book identifying with Daphne while also being kind of annoyed with her for not pulling up out of her tailspin, until I kind of admitted that, this is what tailspins are like. If you could just realize, oh my behavior is irrational, sure you can right yourself, and at time Daphne tries, but really, when you are just at your breaking point, you break.

The book jacket told me that “more than anything, this is a story about motherhood,” but I (who read almost everything as a story about motherhood) really felt there was more here than that. Maybe because it delves so much into the unrest of the world we currently live in — state’s rights and authoritarianism, racism and discrimination against the ‘other.’  I strongly recommend this one, and it’s another pretty quick read.

A rounded out the week with non-fiction – Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. I would say the downside of this book is that I’m not exactly sure what the thesis was. It’s not exactly a memoir, it’s more of a collection of essays. But parts of it were very powerful. Parts of it were also kind of hilarious, in talking about her love of the Babysitter’s Club books growing up she writes, “They fought sometimes, but always made up. And in the end, no matter what, they rode for each other.” Not how I, an extremely white person, who also grew up reading the books ever thought about it.

The chapter White-Girl Tears was one of the more powerful parts for me:

White-lady tears might seem not to be a big deal, but they are actually quite dangerous. When white women signal through their tears that they feel unsafe, misunderstood, or attacked, the whole world rises in their defense. The mythic nature of white female vulnerability compels protective impulses to arise in all men, regardless of race.

I am definitely the beneficiary of being a very non-threatening looking white woman. I try hard not to forget this, and to be honest I have at times been quite grateful for it. Although this book also makes the point that this, the power of white-lady tears really stems from patriarchy, the idea that white women need to be protected. And when you lean into that power, are you really leaning into power?

This was one of many, many books written about rage in the last few years, and it’s the first one I read, so I kind of feel like I need to read This Will Be My Undoing before I can definitely recommend this one.

I also read Expecting Better, which is  a great evidence based pregnancy book. But, if you’re not pregnant, you’re probably not that interested. If you are though, skip What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Read this and Like A Mother. Then call it a day, there aren’t any other good books out there.

Currently reading: Conversations with Friends and The Interestings.