Sunday, August 31, 2014

August Reads

Clay's Ark by Octavia Butler
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Marcella by Mrs. Humphry Ward

This might seem like a light month of reading, but three of these books were over 500 pages.

Marlon James' gigantic novel was an advance reading copy, one acquired thanks to my new job at a bookstore. The novel is a panoramic view of Jamaica from the 1970s to the 1990s, following a giant cast of drug dealers, crooks, politicians, middle class people, journalists from America. The core plot concerns the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, though he is never named. The subsequent actions ripple outwards from this failed attempt, as the story (in the journalistic sense) expands with scope and focus. What makes the novel so engaging is that James writes it in first person stream of consciousness, with select characters getting their own chapters. Since this is set in Jamaica, most of the novel is written in Jamaican patois. So if you thought Irvine Welsh's Scottish phonetic narration was difficult, this is not the novel for you. I loved this book, despite the long effort it took. The stream of consciousness was mesmerizing and James has a gift for necessary exposition that never feels intrusive or awkward. This was one of the best novels I've read so far this year, and that is saying something incredible.

Atkinson's novel was terrific, yet slightly forgettable. I really liked the premise, and appreciated that the author made no attempt to answer it in some sort of third act revelation. Life After Life is an excellent example of an author really thinking through the implications of their premise. Not only does Atkinson follow through on the logical possibilities of her novel's tantalizing premise, but she also offers some philosophical possibilities. Every time the main character dies, she starts again at birth, with hazy hazy memories of the previous attempt. This allows her to manipulate moments in her life to avoid death. Like a pebble in a pond, these interventions create great changes for her life. Atkinson follows through on these changes with great emotional intelligence. The characters, in their various versions, all come across with excellent economic prose. It's a heartbreaking work that -- thanks to its premise -- covers the first half of the twentieth century from a social, political, and economic perspective, all while grounding the plot in well drawn characters. It's not perfect; there are far too many asides. Still, I quite like it.

Marcella is a Virago Modern Classic, and it is a long Late Victorian novel that features a classic marriage plot. Marcella is a beautiful urban socialist who must return to her family's estate, where she struggles against her upper class position and her desire to help the poor. She meets Raeburn, a fine upstanding young man who is about to run for a parliamentary seat. He is of the landed gentry, and sympathetic to the plight of poor, but mostly unmoved. They quickly get engaged. Marcella then meets Wharton, a young socialist also seeking a government position. He is much more politically astute, and helps Marcella further refine her beliefs. Her worldview is shaken when one of the poor people on Raeburn's land, while poaching, murders a watchman in self-defence. The murderer is sentenced to death, and despite Marcella's passionate entreaties to her future husband, is executed. The novel then picks up a year later, when the engagement has been broken, and Marcella is training to be a nurse. Now she must choose between the headstrong Wharton and the heartbroken Raeburn. Despite its length and old-fashioned narrative, I really enjoyed Marcella. The novel considers its politics thoughtfully, and doesn't traffic in easy answers to complex questions. The protagonist is written quite well, with her beliefs, her emotions, and all the inherent contradictions that follow being carefully rendered in the overwrought but muscular prose of a Victorian novelist. I liked that Marcella was frustrating, hadn't thought through everything, and generally went through a discernible and believable character arc. Modern novelists could learn a lot from how Mrs. Ward constructs and follows through on the development of her characters. Yes, it's old-fashioned and somewhat stuffy, and the lower class characters speak in rather classist patois, but Marcella excels in depicting the emotional journey of a proto-New Woman.

The Good Lord Bird is a work of historical fiction, written in the voice of a young slave who for complicated reasons, must present as a woman in woman's clothing in order to survive. Henry Shackleford (the obviousness of the name is not without merit) is a self-identified coward who pretends to be female in order to avoid death, gunfights, and violence while travelling with John Brown, the real life abolitionist. The novel is very funny, which is refreshing, considering that race in America is usually a dead serious topic. The author uses humour as opposed to didactic pedantry to convey his complex message about race and performance. He recalls Frantz Fanon's concept of masks in his use of costume and hiding. The Good Lord Bird is very readable, as well. McBride's narrator is funny without the feeling of elbows being poked in the reader's ribs all the time. The plot moves rather fast, heading towards John Brown's inevitable downfall at Harpers Ferry (an actual event). McBride's weaving of fact and fiction together is seamless, with fun cameos from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass (both of whom John Brown counted as friends in real life). The only issue with The Good Lord Bird is perhaps the political subtext with Shackleford's cross-dressing. McBride emphasizes a few times that deep down, people are who they are, and performing as another gender is a temporary measure that simply hides the true person, that gender is immutable and essential. This is fairly problematic, politically speaking, but it's not enough to mar the entire experience. I liked it, but I'm not sure if it's worthy of the National Book Award. But who am I to decide such a thing.

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