My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Southern Lit with that 21st century twist: A Reality Show
Jonathan Miles’s stab at a fictionalized non-fiction project lands like a dart in a bullseye with Anatomy of a Miracle. The unexplained, spontaneous recovery of PFC Cameron Harris’s severed spine of has all the trappings of a true story, complete with a reality tv experience (which, by its very existence, offers truly gothic and cringeworthy developments) - but it offers so much more, too. The unexpected narrative arc, absorbing and well rounded cast of characters, and the author’s lightly applied but heavily considered overarching pronouncements on the meaning of miracles, science, storytelling, and (of course) love all come together to deliver a story that will leave you thoughtful, surprised, and more than a little heartbroken.
Rarely a false note. I felt a little bogged down by the unrelenting recording of the reality show details but I’m not really a tv kinda girl, so your mileage may vary, as they say. Miles’s ability to employ that reality show, however, in the larger cause of de eloping a gothic southern Lit for the 21st century, though - that delighted and impressed me, and made the parts I found a little tedious more than worth their while.
You won’t soon forget the stories of Cameron, his sister Tanya, and the several others who grow to take their place among the principals here. I won’t tell you who they are because that would spoil all the terrific twists and turns that this story holds! And even as you read the fiction, don’t forget that this could very well be some soldier’s story - at least, several aspects of it. Our young vets have suffered more than most of us will ever know or appreciate. And for what? Miles hints at that Gordonian knot, too.
Truly, a book worth picking up. It covers so much ground, in so many ways, and in such an engaging manner. Southern fiction has a big new name, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Feminist Dystopia with an Easy Grace
Leni Zumas offers a feminist dystopian vision that has the ability to truly terrify readers, largely because it's not a full-blown dystopian nightmare but rather a future America that is all too possible, tweaked as it is with allowances for climate change and the passage of a law that guarantees the unborn the rights of individuals. Her decisions in this regard allow her - and, thus, her readers - to focus on the interior lives of the book's five female protagonists. It's a refreshing approach. Whether readers pick up this book interested in its dystopian vision or its feminist themes, they likely will find themselves reading a book they did not expect to read. For instance, it's not driven by an audacious plot. The author isn't consumed with an agenda of splashy violence. The women in the book still have agency and freedom of movement. In other words, this is no Handmaid's Tale, and (thank goodness) it's not The Power. Instead, it's a well-crafted meditation on whether and how women would live and be evaluated in a world in which what may or may not be growing in their wombs had the same rights as they themselves did. An unwanted pregnancy, a single woman in pursuit of a child, a stay at home mom, a working mother, a female herbalist living on the margins of society, a high-powered local couple without children - how does pregnancy and motherhood affect these people in Zumas's world?
She interrogates her premise with deliberation and care. Because her world is not so very different from the world in which we all now live, Zumas also subtly encourages her readers to consider the ways in which the lives and fates of her characters differ - and approximate - the lives and experiences of women (maybe even the readers themselves? definitely!) today. The result is an unsettling and provocative read.
I really liked this book. It's a solid read, and it's well-written. There were a few unnecessary tangents, though, and at least one story that didn't unfold as much as I really wanted it to. Why she turned coy on that particular story, I don't understand; it didn't match up with the rest of her editorial decisions or the tone of the work overall. I also wish Zumas hadn't been quite so careful in creating her protagonists: the various women run into the problem of becoming sort of approximations of women, because they're pretty stereotypical. I understand why she made the choices she did in this regard, but it creates serious problems when you're considering the reality and continuity of the novel as a whole. Everything in the book is so believable, so subtly chosen - and then you have these paper doll cut-outs as the key characters. It's not to say that Zumas fails to create believable people. On the contrary: they're so believable that what tips you off to the fact that they're made up is the specificity with which they were created. If it weren't for all of the other realism, I'd be willing to say this was created as a fable. But it doesn't READ as a fable. So when I stepped back and considered how the book was put together, I became quite frustrated! Quirkier characters would have been so wonderful here. I wish we could at least have a few of them sneak in during intermission or something! I know I made up a couple to add to the cast as I was reading and then digesting this work.
But don't let my complaints about her character profiles dissuade you. This book is really worth a read, especially if you're new to feminist fiction, and if I were younger and hadn't read as much as I have, I likely would have given this more stars. I know that I'm really looking forward to the next work Zumas publishes, and I'll have high expectations when I pick it up. A thoughtful and considerate new voice in feminist fiction. 3.5/5 stars.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An Important And Accessible Book
Most Americans are not aware of the degree to which our justice system is compromised, racist, and increasingly bent to the will of for-profit corporations. The tragic true story of Ray Hinson’s conviction for a crime he didn’t commit and the subsequent 29 years he spent in a 5x7 cell on death row in Alabama before he proved his innocence and won his release, however, will force society’s eyes wide open. And it will be easy to do so, because Hinson tells an easy to follow, compassionate, shocking tale of what happened to him and how. Whether you come to this book with a curiosity about the injustices Hinson suffered or about the grace that he found and the faith that he followed, you’ll come away impressed and transformed. This is a book of suffering, of violence, of broken hearts - and one of resilience, the power of love, and the meaning of faith as well.
That Hinson was able not only to survive 30 years feet from a death chamber, but also thrive and transform many of the men he met during his incarceration speaks to this man’s great good soul and tenacity. He fights not only for his innocence, but also for the reality that he and his peers are people: men of intellect, emotion, vice, and virtue. He unpacks and reframes the narrative of hate that dominates so many of the lives that end up on The Row. He refuses to judge his fellow inmates, and even his guards. His story speaks to multiple narratives: the experiences of young black men in the post-integration era South, the crippling legacies of racial apartheid and hate, the ways in which even the most open and powerful justice system in the world has been corrupted and repurposed for agendas that have nothing to do with justice. There are subtler stories, too - the difference between the southern black experience in 1985 vs 2015, the ways in which education and loved experience has grown flimsier and more brittle in many ways over the last 40 years, the shifting demographics of death row.
There’s anger and injustice in this book, but hilarity and love and hope, too. Despite spending much of his life in a 5x7 cell, Hinson offers his readers both an unfamiliar story and a thoroughly human one. Everyone should read this book. This is America writ small in 2018: a place of shame, hate, grace, complexity - and legacies that have yet to be decided.
I've read several other books in the last few weeks, but these were the ones I really wanted to share with you. If none of them sound appealing, please take a gander on Goodreads, where you can always view all my reviews!
Watch This Space:
In the next installment of Bookbaggin' It, I'll begin my new column (section?): "Beyond Books." I bet I'm not the only one in the world who subscribes to a fair number of magazines and journals...and fail to read them thoroughly even though I've chosen them specifically because I know they have excellent offerings! My subscriptions fall into a couple of categories: global news, art of all kinds, and American politics. When it comes to news, it's all too easy, especially these days, to get sucked into just reading headlines, twitter feeds, news digests, and so on, while true analysis and commentary languishes. But we, the literari, have a responsibility to read the good stuff! The stuff that will help us not only understand what's happening in the world, but how it relates to what's already happened, and why it matters. And when it comes to art, how else are we supposed to keep an eye out for really excellent new books and awesome new artists if we don't know who's out there on the cusp of publication or installation? I don't want to be someone who only reads the big publishers. I don't wnt my ideas and my imagination to be formatted by someone who created a logarithm and decided that such and such book or a certain art display was going to be a hit. I want to find the little diamonds out there, see artists evolving in real time! Don't you? It's one of the reasons that I order books from a couple of small publishing houses, such as New Directions, And Other Stories, and Tin House. I generally love their authors. I want small houses to succeed! I want the 21st century to truly be the most expansive and creative of any that have preceded it. I'll get off my soapbox now, but...ya know. I just want to see what's out there, and I want you to see it, too. So I'm going to start offering brief summaries and reviews of some of the magazines and journals to which I subscribe. I hope you enjoy it. Maybe you'll even be inclined to order one or two of them yourself! Please let me know.
In This Week's Bookbag:
I'm on the verge, finally, of finishing Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (SO many notes on this one. Such an important and of the moment book!) by Rania Abouzeid, and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. I also just started House of Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, and Madeline Miller's Circe just appeared on my Kindle this week - FINALLY! If you haven't read The Song of Achilles by Miller, you truly are missing out. I've been waiting with bated breath for this release since I closed the book on that one a couple of years ago. All signs sort of point to that one winding up at the front of the pack once I finish up Abouzeid and Erpenbeck. Maybe you should pick it up, too, and we can read along! Would anyone be interested in having a little book discussion? We could just pick a book a month and chat about it on my FB page? Let me know your thoughts.
If you're enjoying my blog, please share it with your favorite book-reading friends and neighbors. You can sign up for email notices when a new entry has been posted by clicking the "Subscribe" button at the top of the page, set your calendar to remind you to check in with me on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings (I try to have this out the door by 4pm on Fridays so we can all start our weekends reading!), or you stop by and like Friends of Bookbaggin' It on Facebook, if you're a social media sort. There you'll find my weekly blog updates as well as some fun links and the occasional musing. Hope to see you soon and thanks for reading!