May 14, 2015

April Reading Recap

Before May gets completely away from me, here's a look back at what I read in April:

THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: WRITERS ON RACE IN THE LIFE OF THE MIND is an anthology of essays edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. I read Rankine's excellent prose poetry collection CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC and posted about it in January. When I heard Rankine discuss this newer book on an episode of Bookworm (there's also a separate interview about CITIZEN), I was intrigued.

I'm always interested in the topics tackled in THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: how writers address fraught subjects, how to engage in discussions about race, how to write well about and across racial differences. In these essays, writers (mostly poets) reveal how race impacts (or doesn't) their work and their careers. The wide range of viewpoints and approaches make this a great anthology to read, study, and contemplate. The book itself is beautifully designed and includes artwork selected for its relevance to the topics under discussion.

The pieces in this collection are all thoughtful and unflinching. Many of the essayists discuss how difficult these subjects are to write about, or even to consider, and many reveal personal moments of shame or hurt. This book doesn't set out to be a how-to guide for writers (if you're looking for that, I recommend WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward as a good starting point), but I found it helpful in thinking about my own writing. I recommend it to any writer or reader.

→ In THE WILD SHORE by Kim Stanley Robinson, Henry is a teenager living in a small fishing community on the southern California coast. At least, Onofre is part of a place once called California, but that name has been fairly meaningless for sixty years, since a large-scale disaster decimated the population and isolated the small groups of survivors. Henry is fascinated by the stories of his teacher Tom, still spry at over 100 years old, though he's never quite sure whether to believe the tales. When strangers arrive from San Diego, Henry and Tom have the chance to learn more about what happened to the old America and what's going on in the wider world. It's information that may change their whole way of life.

I was excited when I realized Kim Stanley Robinson had written a novel in my beloved post-apocalyptic genre, since I was blown away by his Mars trilogy. THE WILD SHORE was his first published novel, and it turns out to be a rather less accomplished work. While many aspects of the book are interesting and entertaining (there's an especially exciting action sequence near the middle), the story meanders, and a lot of things are set up that didn't really go anywhere.

This is the first book of the Three Californias trilogy, which speculates on three different possible futures, so the other installments feature entirely separate stories and characters. I do plan to read the rest, and I'll be curious to see how they compare and whether this book works better as a part of the whole.

THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Fatima Bhutto: It's the morning of the first day of Eid in Mir Ali, a town in the volatile semi-autonomous region of Pakistan near the Afghan border. The novel follows three brothers as they each rush off to important tasks and meetings before the start of noon prayers. Aman Erum has recently come home from studying in the United States, and he's struggling to adjust to life back in a place he never wanted to return to. Sikander is distracted from his work as a doctor by his troubled wife, who barges in on the funerals of strangers. Hayat, unbeknownst to his brothers, is involved in the underground rebel movement.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a region I knew nothing about. The characters, family dynamics, and secrets Bhutto sets up are well-developed and rich with possibilities. The plot that unfolds is tense, with carefully placed revelations and buildup. Strong writing makes each scene gripping, and I was always absorbed and eager to find out what would happen next.

However: The political situation of Mir Ali is underexplained within the book, particularly early on when it would be most useful, and I had to do some outside research to orient myself. This is a surprising choice, since most readers won't be aware of the background and may pick up the book precisely because it portrays an unfamiliar locale. Even more confusing is the novel's abrupt ending. I don't expect stories to resolve with every thread neatly tied up, but so many pieces of the three plotlines were left unconnected that I felt like the book was missing its final quarter.

There is much in this novel to recommend, but it fell short of what it might have delivered.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mental Floss presents Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional: "It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded."

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