May 6, 2024

April Reading Recap

I had another great month of so much reading!

ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST by Xochitl Gonzalez: Anita de Monte and Jack Martin are married artists, both successful within their very different styles, but less successful at being married. Though they've always been drawn together, they are often violently at odds and think little of each other's work. Their years of shared passion and separate creativity end with Anita's shocking death in 1985. Less than 15 years later, Jack remains a giant in the art world, but Anita isn't even on the radar of art history student Raquel Toro as she prepares to embark on her senior thesis. Like Anita, Raquel forms a relationship with a more established artist who'd rather shape her to his tastes than appreciate who she is. As Raquel studies Jack's art, she closes in on the knowledge of Anita and all they have in common.

This is a fantastic, unpredictable novel about art, passion, and identity. The characters are wonderfully developed, sometimes infuriating, and all memorable. I was able to envision the artwork, and I liked the level of detail that filled out a whole art world around Anita and Jack. I also had a particular fondness for the details of Raquel's setting, since she attends Brown University at almost the same time I did. In the middle, I grew impatient for Raquel to hurry up and learn about Anita, but the suspense over this inevitability pays off, and all the story's pieces come together in such a satisfying way.

I didn't know until after reading that Anita's life, art, and death were closely based on a real artist, Ana Mendieta. Gonzalez discusses the inspiration in interviews, and Mendieta's family has also commented on the fictional portrayal.

VICTORY CITY by Salman Rushdie: When Pampa Kampana is a child, she is visited by a goddess who tells her she will plant a city and live more than two centuries to chronicle its rise and fall. That city, eventually named Bisnaga, grows from a bag of seeds in a matter of days, complete with fully grown citizens who only need Pampa to whisper their histories into their minds. A series of rulers transforms Bisnaga and extends the size of its empire, sometimes through negotiation, mostly through warfare. With Pampa's divinely extended lifespan, she is involved in every dynasty, serving as queen, advisor, or adversary. She records it all in an epic poem recounting Bisnaga's history, and she experiences the loneliness of watching everyone she loves grow old and die while she lives on.

Rushdie is a great storyteller, and this story kept me entertained, but I was less invested than I wanted to be. What created an emotional distance was the narrative's fairy tale quality: the archetypal characters, magically convenient solutions, and things happening in threes or according to other formulas. It's a deliberate style that's written well, and even if it didn't quite work for me, I remained curious about how events would unfold.

It turns out this is the second book in a row I read without realizing its basis in real historical events. Rushdie invented the magical parts, of course, but VICTORY CITY more or less tells the story of the Vijayanagara Empire that dominated southern India in the medieval period, with the names of the rulers, the dates of battles, and so on pulled right out of history.

JAMES by Percival Everett is the story of the runaway slave Jim from Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. As in the original, after James flees to avoid being sold, he ends up traveling down the Mississippi with the boy Huck, who has always been, if not entirely kind, at least friendlier to him than the average white person. The ever-present threat of capture keeps James and Huck's journey perilous, and stealth and deception are often necessary. James is particularly skilled at deception, because survival in slavery depends on maintaining an intricate facade.

The first facade exposed in Everett's version is that every enslaved person is bilingual, putting on a thick, tortuous dialect in the presence of whites, and switching to a refined English among themselves. It's a delightful reveal, both funny and sharp, and Everett continues playing with this and other facets of language throughout the novel. The book delivers further surprises I won't spoil, all as skillfully managed.

I reread HUCK FINN in preparation for this new release, and that was interesting but definitely not required. Parts of JAMES follow the source material, but not all, and that's a solid choice given how constrained Jim's activity is for much of Twain's novel. Everett provides James with a more varied set of constraints, enriching and elevating his story. This is a fascinating reimagining, highly recommended.

SEEK YOU: A JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN LONELINESS by Kristen Radtke: In this work of graphic nonfiction, Radtke grapples with loneliness by writing and drawing about both her personal experience and the wider phenomenon of societal isolation. The text moves between a range of topics, including scientific studies and aspects of media history, tying these together with scenes from Radtke's own life and forming connections. The illustrations have a unified style but also cover a range of subject matter, sometimes depicting people in realistic settings, other times imaginatively evoking a feeling, and frequently reproducing news headlines and other documents.

I found the book's material interesting and the art visually appealing. The content is thought-provoking and educated me about subjects both entertaining (laugh tracks, professional cuddlers) and disturbing (psychologist Harry Harlow's monkey studies). At times, I thought the text switched too quickly between topics or fell short of reaching an intended conclusion. My bigger complaint is a number of missed opportunities where the illustrations might have done something that text couldn't, by showing what was being described or using sequential images for more impact.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens: In 1952, Kya is six years old and left to more or less fend for herself in a shack in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. In 1969, in the nearest town, local big shot Chase Andrews is found dead, possibly murdered. Kya is still living a hermit-like existence in the marsh, and at first she's suspected only for her outcast status, but then because her past history with Chase comes to light. The first half of the book is mostly episodes from Kya's childhood showing how she survives, often with only birds for company, interspersed with occasional short chapters about the murder investigation. In the second half, events preceding and following the murder take prominence.

I'm baffled that this unremarkable novel has been a runaway bestseller. The book's strength is the descriptive passages that evoke the natural setting of the marsh Kya loves. Nothing else stood out to me. I was moderately (but only moderately) interested in the story during the first section, and then gradually less so as the book neared its underwhelming conclusion. I found the plot lacking, and the dialogue flat and unconvincing. Millions of readers love this book, but it did little for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Scottie Andrew at CNN profiles author Lauren Groff's new bookstore, The Lynx in Gainesville, Florida: "Groff understands Florida, in all of its confounding and infuriating glory. She knows that the things that live here are hard to conquer. 'What we want to do is create a lighthouse so that, nationally, people know that Florida is not full of closed-minded people,' Groff says. 'So that they know that there are places here that love and welcome transgender people, people who want to learn about Black history, people who want to pay homage to what actually happened, even if it makes us feel bad.'"

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