Hill: Someone Knows My Name

Someone Knows My Name – Lawrence Hill 9★

book of negroes
Someone Knows My Name (in U.S.)

Breathtaking, heartbreaking, unsentimental, unsparing.

Enter a nearly inconceivable world where one group of people strips another of its very humanity then employs mental gymnastics to “justify” it while preserving a careful identity of superiority, morality, godliness. It’s psychological distortion that can be seen to this day – overtly in countries where slavery and genocide continue, and with a sly subtlety elsewhere.

Spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the novel paints a deeply realized portrait of a single woman as she navigates (survives) an unimaginable journey—one of 13 million. The protagonist travels from a village in West Africa to a slave ship across the Atlantic to the southern U.S., Manhattan, Canada, and back.

This book left an imprint that lingered behind my daily thoughts for weeks. Now, months later, it continues to find its way into random conversations. Fantastic.

More info:

Author’s site

NYT review

Why I’m not allowed my book title
Lawrence Hill on changing the novel’s title from Book of Negroes for American readers

Article on Book of Negroes CBC miniseries

Aminata FundThe Aminata Fund of Crossroads International honors the resourceful and resilient spirit of the fictional Aminata and enables vital programs that assist today’s African women and girls to achieve autonomy and reach their potential.

Saunders: Tenth of December

Tenth of December – George Saunders 9★

10th of dec

Written by a MacArthur Fellow, praised by critics and writers alike, nominated for an NBA: there’s been no shortage of accolades for Saunders or his latest story collection.

Yet when I found it at a used book sale, although aware of some hype, I had read none of it. So here’s my (nearly) unprimed reaction:

While reading this book I was moved to look up from its pages and say aloud to no one, This is kind of genius. Repeatedly.

As a short story writer I was made to rethink everything: from the conceit of a story, to its pacing, character, language, and its satiric possibility.

And I was continually gripped by an unexpected, palpitating excitement. Like when you’ve been caffeinating all morning—in seeming vain—till you find yourself humming with an exquisite articulateness, making copious typos and thinking aloud in an empty room.

This led to bursts of desire to start a new story or rewrite an old story from a new place, or make notes on my new ideas about stories – each of which was countered by the stronger desire to stay where I was and keep reading.

The inventiveness, commanding voice, and sense of effortlessness reminded me of reading Junot Diaz.

I can’t recommend this book enough. In fact, I run out of literary friends long before I exhaust my urge to keep talking about it, suggesting it, giving it as a spontaneous gift.

More info:

George Saunders has Written the Best Book You’ll Read this Year
Great rewrite up in NYT Magazine. Includes an anecdote of Foster Wallace calling Saunders “the most exciting writer in America.”

Tenth of December
Saunders interview
At The New Yorker

From George Saunders, A Dark ‘December’
Review at NPR from the funny and incisive Michael Schaub.

Saunders reads Festive, a Christmas bedtime story on Colbert.

Authors on Tour podcast. Main points summarized nicely on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog.

Tartt: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch – Donna Tart 6★The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for fiction. Their citation explains:

Awarded to “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown), a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.

As for me, I really liked most of this book. However, I was bothered by the very beginning and the very end.

In the beginning, the particulars of a major event are difficult to follow, even upon a second read. I found myself wondering if this was purposeful, intended to echo the confusion of the protagonist. But it seems unlikely as similar devices aren’t used elsewhere.

Then at the very end of the book, several pages expound upon (as to make exceedingly clear) its major themes. If this had been interspersed throughout it would have made more sense, but as-is it feels conspicuous, out of place, and a little off-putting.

Further, this same section spends a few paragraphs delivering a last-minute and out-of-the-blue tidbit explaining that the protagonist had kept journals all along. So here we are, 700 pages in, and…by the way, the narrator was writing things down things from childhood onward, in case you doubted how he could recount, in such vivid detail, everything you just read. It felt shoved in, as if to address a concern voiced two weeks before deadline.

In any event…

…the voice in this book is remarkable. Dialogue is clearly where Ms. Tart shines: engrossing, distinct, believable.

Much has been said about the scope of the book (not quite Dickensian, in my opinion, although Kakutani would disagree) but I was underwhelmed by its “ambitious” sweep  and in fact think the book may have fared better if somewhat more contained.

And while a good-hearted but thoroughly flawed protagonist is nothing new, it is well done – affecting. I appreciate how, although he came to grow and mature somewhat – he retained his struggles, and I–because of this rather than despite it–remained invested in him and rooting for him. If he hadn’t shown signs of growth I may have cared all the same.

More info:

Goodreads has an interesting thread about the things to like/dislike about this novel: Anyone else love this book but hate the ending?

This piece in Vanity Fair examines both the critical praise and pans of this excessively discussed novel.

Gay: An Untamed State

An Untamed State – Roxanne Gay 7.5 ★

Unflinching, up-ending, devastating. There is nothing easy about this book. No clear understanding, no simple resolution, no sense of peace. Yet I couldn’t put it down. Written with stomach-churning detail and page-turning suspense, this book grabs you and doesn’t let go.

Roxanne Gay, author of the acclaimed essay collection Bad Feminist, sets the novel amid the rampant kidnappings in Haiti in the early 2000s. The novel’s title describes the both raw, chaotic environment of the Port au Prince streets and the protagonist’s mind after 13 days of brutal captivity.

untamed_stateIn this world, nothing is consistent, comfortable, predictable. Nothing fits squarely beneath its label: privileged / oppressed, parents / husband / in-laws, ringleader / henchman, human / animal, victim / survivor, broken / whole.

This book will stay with me for a long time.

More info:

Author page
Ted Talk: Confessions of a Bad Feminist
Gay’s NYC Op-eds


Wickersham: The Suicide Index

suicide indexThe Suicide Index: Putting my Father’s Death in Order – Joan Wickersham 6★

This powerful memoir defies chronology and explores the devastation of a father’s suicide by “indexing” different angles of the tragedy.

In this way, we repeatedly return to moments throughout the fateful day and the long years of its aftermath.

Rooted in detail, powerful, and—somehow—unsentimental. Impressive.

More info:

Author’s site

The Suicide Index was a  2008 NBA finalist. Here’s the citation and excerpt.

Wong: This Book if Full of Spiders

spidersThis Book is Full of Spiders – David Wong 6★

I laughed my butt off reading this book.

Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, and it’s true I found the 20-something-male-slacker humor a little much. But I’m hardly its demographic, and the fact that I enjoyed the book so much is really a tribute to the strength of storytelling and sense of the absurd that carries the plot through this small town alien invasion, end-of-world, save-the-day type stuff.

Overall a good romp. Think quick-paced zombie satire.

For what it’s worth: While I was reading in a coffee shop, a concerned woman put a hand on my shoulder to see if I was okay. I was slumped forward, face in hands, shaking in silent laughter. This was about a year ago and I can still quote the exact line that triggered this utter loss of composure.

More info:

David Wong is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin, executive editor of the humor site Cracked.com. See also the prequel to Spiders John Dies at the End and his new novel Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. Haven’t read those.


Karr: Lit

LitLit – Mary Carr 7★

Visceral, brutally honest, funny. I’m not the first to use these words to describe Karr’s writing. She’s one of the top memoirists of her generation.

Using the publisher’s description,

Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live.

But you don’t have to be a drunk, a writer, or a mother to relate. Just human.

See also The Liar’s Club and her new The Art of Memoir.