March was an excellent reading month. I highly recommend all three of these books:
→ THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR by Sandra Newman astounded me from the opening sentences, when I discovered the story is written in an invented dialect of English that doesn't yet exist but could after generations of language evolution. (You can read the opening here to see what I'm talking about.) As this ambitious narrative style signals, Newman did serious worldbuilding for her post-apocalyptic novel, and the reader experiences it naturally as the gripping story unfolds.
Ice Cream Star is fifteen years old, so she's one of her community's elders in a future where every child sickens and dies by the age of twenty. Ice Cream and her clan are aware that things were different in the time before a disastrous plague struck, but many generations have passed since then, and they know little of the world before. They survive in Massa woods by hunting wild animals, searching the ruins of long-abandoned houses, and trading with or stealing from other local groups. While they've warred in the past with some of their neighbors, life is relatively peaceful until the discovery of a strange child utterly unlike themselves. He sets the occupants of Massa woods on the path toward a greater war than they've ever known.
Much of the content in the book is difficult, as the story focuses on war and its harsh realities and also covers a range of other challenging subjects. Fortunately, Ice Cream serves as a powerful guide for both her people and the reader. There are many more fascinating aspects to Ice Cream's world that I haven't mentioned because I want you to discover them as you read. The reveal of information is handled beautifully, as is the choice to leave many details unexplained, and one of the pleasures of this book is making connections, recognizing places, and interpreting words that are initially mysterious. While the narrative dialect could be a deal breaker for some readers, it's deftly executed, and I recommend giving it a try even if you're skeptical. I was so captivated by Ice Cream's voice that I often found myself thinking in it when I set the book down. This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time.
→ WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE by T. Geronimo Johnson opens by listing all the names the protagonist, D'aron, has been known by. This provides a quick sketch of his whole childhood in the South, where he is picked on for being smart and fat and sensitive (and therefore gay, by bully logic). When D'aron begins his freshman year at UC Berkeley, he's thrilled to be in a place utterly unlike his small Georgia hometown, but he has a hard time fitting in. He finally makes friends when a diverse group of classmates bond after being accused, somewhat dubiously, of racist behavior.
The friends enroll in a very Berkeley class on alternative perspectives in American history and decide that as a project, they'll stage a performative intervention (a theatrical type of protest) during spring break in D'aron's hometown. The scene of the intervention will be the annual Civil War reenactment, and the form will be a mock lynching. Their intent is to point out the problems in proudly memorializing the Confederacy, but the message isn't well formulated, and the details are even more poorly planned. On the day of the reenactment, things go terribly, terribly wrong.
The novel starts off darkly funny before turning just plain dark for a while, and the writing is strong and compelling throughout. The uncomfortable humor works because it's detailed and disconcerting: "Quint, more a brother than a cousin, had the Confederate flag tattooed on his left forearm, in case you didn't see the one on his right." Johnson applies the same level of careful observation to the story's brutally emotional moments. He also employs a number of narrative techniques, and while I found the shifts disorienting at times, which may be part of the point, the combination of styles was overall effective.
WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE is a sharp, powerful exploration of modern biases around race, class, and geography, and it's also a hell of a story.
→ NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS by Kirstin Valdez Quade is a collection of short stories that succeed at the difficult task of taking small moments in ordinary lives and rendering them fascinating. These are all beautifully detailed portraits of people and relationships that I was able to quickly care about and remain engrossed in, something I can't often say about short stories.
The stories are set in New Mexico and other parts of the American West, in a variety of eras ranging from the 1920s to the present day. Many deal with class differences or cultural divides. In "Jubilee", a young woman attends a fancy party with the intention of showing up the rich hosts who employ her father, but as the event goes on, what's exposed are her own insecurities. The main character in "Canute Commands the Tides" moves to New Mexico to paint, and when she hires a woman to help clean and unpack, she envisions a charitable friendship with her housekeeper that turns out not to match the reality of their relationship.
Quade makes all the stories real and specific with perfectly crafted and sometimes funny observations of the characters and moments. In "The Five Wounds", she writes of a pregnant teenager's belly, "The buttons of her jeans are unsnapped to make way for its fullness, and also to indicate how it got that way in the first place." The title story features a great narrative voice that gently mocks the protagonist, a teen girl who is constantly imagining herself as a character in a book or movie: "She pictured herself: her slow blush, lashes lowered against her cheek."
Families play an important role throughout this collection. My favorite of the stories is probably "The Guesthouse", about a man who must deal with his grandmother's house and affairs following her death. He can't count on his mother and sister to help out because he and Grandma were the responsible ones in the family, an identity he's quite invested in, and the situation is made more complicated by the reappearance of his estranged father. Another standout is "Family Reunion", in which a girl tries to navigate her family's weirdness as non-Mormons in Salt Lake City. But really, it's hard to pick out the best stories. They're all excellent, and I look forward to more of Quade's work.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ At Book Riot, Rachel Smalter Hall explains What Happens to a Book After You Donate It to the Library: "The Friends of the Library volunteers go to work after the books hit the sorting area. Each volunteer is trained to be responsible for a designated subject area, and the room they work in is lined with bookshelves labeled by subject. There's even a shelf for rare books and first editions. The room has a fun and informal vibe, with volunteers coming and going at all hours to chip away at new donations, snack on hard candy, and chit chat with each other about books, family, and life."