July 11, 2018

June Reading Recap

Another month, another batch of books to report on!

→ The first chapter of THERE THERE by Tommy Orange introduces us to Tony, who's grown up riding his bike around Oakland, listening to his grandmother's stories of their Cheyenne history, and getting angry about people thinking he's stupid. Tony is recruited into a scheme to rob the Oakland powwow with 3-D printed guns, and that threat hangs over the rest of the novel as we meet other characters on a trajectory toward the powwow. Dene, a filmmaker, is applying for a grant to document the Urban Indian experience, with plans to set up a story booth at the big event. Opal, who was part of the Native occupation of Alcatraz as a child, is now raising the grandsons of her estranged sister and doesn't have time to talk to them about their heritage. The oldest grandson, Orvil, is secretly practicing to dance at the powwow and compete for the prize money that Tony and his associates plan to steal.

These are only a few of the dozen viewpoint characters whose lives entwine in THERE THERE, and Orange gives each of these lives a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages. I would happily have read many more chapters about every character, but Orange keeps the story tight, setting up all the players and pieces and building suspense about the approaching powwow. The final section of the novel is a breakneck, heartbreaking account of the inevitable violence that explodes at the point where the characters converge. While I wished for a conclusion that tied up more threads or followed them further, the book's ending was as emotionally effective as all that came before.

WHERE YOU'LL FIND ME: RISK, DECISIONS, AND THE LAST CLIMB OF KATE MATROSOVA by Ty Gagne is the gripping account of a solo mountaineering expedition that went fatally wrong. In February 2015, experienced climber Kate Matrosova activated her emergency beacon in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She'd started hiking before dawn, planning to summit several peaks before the end of the day, but she was unaware that a forecasted storm was hitting sooner than expected. The storm brought extreme wind and cold, notable even for the region, creating many obstacles for the search and rescue teams who responded to Matrosova's distress call and ultimately recovered her body.

Gagne, a risk management consultant and wilderness first responder, pieces together all available information to detail the whereabouts and actions of Matrosova and the rescuers throughout the ordeal. He tells the story in compelling prose that makes this a page-turning and even suspenseful read despite the known outcome. I found the discussion of decision-making and risk-assessment techniques a bit drier than the rest of the material, but it was interesting to have the events filtered through that very relevant perspective. This is a fascinating book, researched and written with care and compassion.

GIRLCHILD by Tupelo Hassman is a darker story than the jacket copy suggests. Rory lives in a trailer park outside Reno with her mother and grandmother, and while these two strong, protective women are distracted by their own problems, Rory is traumatized by ongoing sexual abuse. She's so terrified to speak of it that her narrative initially talks around the subject, and the book even includes some blacked-out pages before Rory's mother and grandmother finally realize what's happening. In time, with their help and some inspiration from the Girl Scout Handbook, Rory is able to move forward and imagine growing up and away from the hard life of the trailer park.

This novel is made up of short vignettes and documentation from Rory's life that jump around in topic and time. The fragmented format works pretty well to depict Rory's painful memories, but some of the more unusual pieces didn't do as much for me as her straightforward narration. Rory's voice and idiosyncratic observations are great, with a darkly humorous outlook that pulls her and the story out of the most difficult periods and makes this ultimately a hopeful book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund explains the problem with "Show, don't tell": "I'll gladly scrap 'Show, don't tell,' for another rule: Put the reader there. Whether you show or tell them something, the goal should be to make the reader feel what you're writing. Make them cry, laugh, or think."