Reading Ireland Month: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

ri18Irish writer Jennifer Johnston is a new author to me, despite having written something like 19 novels. I learned of her from Cathy at 746 Books a couple of years ago, and put her on my list for a future Reading Ireland Month. Her 1974 novella How Many Miles to Babylon? appealed to me because I have been wanting to read more novels set in and around World War I (I think I have literary WWII fatigue) and also because it is short! Only 156 pages in my library edition. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I found a tremendously moving, beautifully written story.

Essentially you have the story of a friendship that blossoms between an upper class, landed young Irishman, Alexander, and a peasant boy, Jerry, who lives nearby and later works in the stables on the estate. This unlikely friendship is much to the chagrin of Alexander’s disapproving parents, who are locked in a deeply unhappy relationship of their own. But then World War I begins, and both young men enlist – Alexander, half pushed into it by his mother and half escaping his unhappy home; Jerry, to learn how to fight in the Irish Nationalist movement to come.

11917193Just about half of the book takes place before the war and half during. The writing is just lovely and evocative, and Alexander’s and Jerry’s burgeoning friendship centers mainly on forbidden (because of Alexander’s supposedly delicate health) swims in the lake.

I remember, now that my mind has returned to it, the racing clouds in the pale sky above, and, below, the same clouds racing in the water, and it seemed as if we floated between them not connected in any way to the earth. It was my first and best experience of alcohol. Before going home we went down and swam among the clouds in the lake, and sucked in great mouthfuls of them, and sprayed them out all over each other. The sun’s golden track across the water made it look, we both agreed, as if walking on the water would be child’s play. 

Once the narrative moves to the Front, Alexander is made an officer and Jerry is a Private. Here, too, their friendship is frowned upon, on the grounds of discipline and also class. Johnston writes about the horrors of war with a deliberate, clear eye but also lets the two friends enjoy moments of fun ( a few moments on horseback to chase a fox) and tender connection. In fact, there is a question of whether or not the friendship is homoerotic or perhaps would have been more in different times and circumstances. Clearly the two have a special bond.

It was the only thing that was a positive pleasure, the feel of the alcohol creeping like a slow flame down your throat. He knelt down in front of me and began to ease off my right boot. The illness in his eyes as he smiled at me was a reflection of my own. He didn’t speak. The operation took some time. It was painful and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever get them back on again, my feet were so swollen.

‘It’s like taking a cork out of a bottle.’

He then began on the second boot. He carefully peeled off my socks. Without a word he took up the flask and poured some of the rum into the hollow of his palm and then began to massage my feet.

‘Hey!’

He only grinned.

‘You’ll be a new man in the morning.’

819524The ending is a bit of a shock. The reader knows from the beginning that something bad has happened because Alexander is writing from a military prison cell and then goes into reflection on the whole backstory. I’ll say that I cried, a lot. It’s a heart-breaker for sure. But it is incredibly beautiful as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so invested in a novella before. I loved the quality of the writing, I loved the details about the trenches and the waiting time between going back out to the trenches. I loved the descriptions of the lake in Ireland and the swans that swim there, the stolen moments the boys had before the war. I haven’t even talked about Alexander’s mother and father, how wretchedly unhappy they are, how quietly cruel the mother is. She’ll give you the shivers for sure. This was a terrific read and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jennifer Johnston in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

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Catching Up

I’ve done a dangerous thing:  I’ve started a free trial of Amazon Prime. Actually, I can blame my husband – he’s the one who signed up for it, thinking it would make his item come faster (it didn’t.) Well, I thought, since I’ve got this for 30 days, what can I watch? Ah, yes, Bosch!  I’ve always wanted to see how they developed Michael Connelly’s beloved police procedurals for the small screen!

MV5BNjZjNjMyNDctZDNhOC00ODFlLTlmYzYtYjc2ZWMxNjNmYmE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjI4OTg2Njg@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Uh-oh, my friends. It’s AMAZING. Here I am, eight episodes in, and I can feel my desire to read just ebbing away like sands through the hourglass. Titus Welliver is mesmerizing as LAPD detective Harry Bosch, and the show is just as addictive as the novels. The political intrigue in the police department is just as as compelling as the cases Bosch works. I don’t plan on continuing the subscription after 30 days so I fear that my reading will take a bit of a backseat for the next couple of weeks until I get through the three seasons currently available. Good thing I’ve been on such a hot streak in 2018. I’ve read five books! And two of them are books I own, which means a great start to my small goal of reading at least 12 of my own books.

Let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve read so far this year. The longer I go between finishing a book and writing about it, the less I want to write a review. Here are some highlights of my January so far.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I love starting out the year with a five-star read!  This was just as lovely and moving as My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s set in the 51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_same universe (Lucy even appears in one story, about her and her siblings.) I don’t know how Strout does it, but she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. She also seems to know how to manipulate my tear-ducts, as I cried on more than one occasion while reading these linked short stories. My two favorite stories in the novel were “Windmills” and “Mississippi Mary.” The latter is about the special bond between a youngest (and favorite) daughter and her mother. Mary (the mom) has moved to Italy, finally living her life for herself and experiencing true love with a younger Italian man. Angelina (the daughter) is middle-aged, having marital troubles, and has never gotten over her parents’ divorce or the fact that Mary has moved across an ocean.  It’s a story about shifting roles as parents age and whether or not a child can ever fully see a parent as a person in her own right. It’s just a knock-out. If you can get a copy of this and only have time for one story, read this one.

51ZCLMRv8nL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I listened to The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and what an uplifting audio book! Cowritten and narrated by Douglas Abrams, (two excellent voice actors narrate the parts of the Dalai Lama and Tutu) this book is the fruit of a week’s visit between the two spiritual leaders and friends in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Abrams asks the men to share their wisdom in conversations about cultivating joy in the midst of worldly troubles. I loved hearing how close the two men are, how they laugh with and tease one another. I laughed out loud quite a few times, and when it was time for them to say goodbye to one another at the end of the week, I cried. This is a five-star audio book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for everyone, especially if you could use an emotional lift. I may end up buying a physical copy to refer to again.

My book group pick for January was Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg. Historical fiction, set in New York City in the 1920’s and ’30’s. This was a page-turner for me as I finished it in two days. Mazie, loosely based on a real-life woman, is a bold, unconventional young23245422 woman for the time, and I found myself empathizing with her even as she made some choices that I didn’t care for. There were some surprisingly sexy scenes in this book too! Our book group had a lively discussion about how successful the diary/interview format of the book was, and whether or not Mazie felt authentic to the time period. Personally I found her a big-hearted, vulnerable character who tried her best to make lemonade from the lemons that life threw her way. This was a solid four-star read, sad, but worth it.

Finally, I finished the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante with the final installment, The Story of the Lost Child. I had finished the third novel back in February of 2016 (!) and for some reason had put off reading the fourth. I do get easily bored reading too much of the 81V-4jCgCiLsame kind of thing in succession, and I probably just got distracted by other books. In any case, I was disappointed by Lost Child. I found it tedious and too long. What I loved about the other three novels, the complicated “frenemy” relationship between the two main characters, Elena and Lila, took a back seat to Elena’s love life. Boring! Her relationship with Nino was just painful; he was such a cad and Elena just dithered and dawdled about her decisions. Oh well. At least I’m done with the series, and it was a book I own too, so that’s a plus.

Right now I’ve just started reading Nella Larsen’s Passing, and Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Both are very good so far. And they’re both books I own!  I’m on a roll in that department. Right now Bosch may have stolen my attention, but I won’t let these gems linger for too long. Happy reading and have a great weekend, everyone!  Tell me, what books and television shows have caught your fancy this week?

 

 

Mini Reviews: The Late Show by Michael Connelly and Revolutionary by Alex Myers

She believed her was her man, and there was nothing quite like that moment of knowing.  It was the Holy Grail of detective work.  It had nothing to do with evidence or legal procedure or probable cause.  It was just knowing it in your gut.  Nothing in her life beat it.  It had been a long time coming to her on the late show but now she felt it and she knew deep down it was the reason she would never quit, no matter where they put her or what they said about her.

TheLateShowUSAI had to turn in my copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show before I could begin this review because it had holds on it and was OVERDUE – yes, sometimes when you’re waiting on a book from the library it’s your friendly librarian who is stopping up the works!  (I only let it go a few days past due, in my defense.  🙂 )  Anyway, it was terrific, as most of Connelly’s books are.  There’s something about his books that just soothe my itch for crime thrillers, and every time he comes out with a new one I am SO THERE.

This one is the start of a new series, apparently, introducing a new detective, Renée Ballard.  She’s an LAPD detective on “the late show,” which is what they call the overnight shift, just there to take reports and interview witnesses. Because of that, she has to turn over investigations to the day shift, and never gets to follow a case through to completion.  It’s a demotion in her eyes – she was a regular day time detective before she brought allegations of sexual harassment against her supervisor.  (This part did feel a little under explained to me – it was a “he said/she said” case with no corroboration from anyone else, but I wondered why she wasn’t just moved to another division elsewhere.  But I digress.)  You can feel her frustration from the first scenes.  There are two cases that happen the same night that are unrelated but Renée can’t seem to let go of.  One involves a brutal, near-deadly beating of a transgendered prostitute names Ramona; the other, a shooting at a night-club that killed five people, two of whom seem to be innocent bystanders.  As Ballard gets deeper into her (mostly unsanctioned) investigations, she gets closer and closer to what she calls “Big Evil” in the first case, and indications in the second that seem to point to one of LAPD’s own as the murderer.

I liked Ballard a lot.  Her back story was interesting (Hawaiian heritage, absentee mother, father who died in a surfing accident while she watched helplessly.)  She has a dog named Lola which she rescued from a homeless person and who is fiercely protective of her.  She paddle boards when she needs to relax or think over the direction of her case, and she will camp out on the beach when she needs sleep.  One thing I kept pondering again and again was, “When does this woman sleep?”  Another was, “Does she have a house?”  It wasn’t until later in the book that we’re told that her permanent address with the Force is her grandmother’s house, but she only stays there every couple of weeks to do laundry, eat a home cooked meal, and visit.   So she’s a strong, independent character, but there are definitely cracks beneath the surface.  I’ll be interested to see how she develops in future installments!  4 stars.

 

Deborah wrapped herself in her blanket.  Her breeches had dried, and her waistcoat too.  Only her shirt and the binding beneath remained damp.  She lay down and closed her eyes, feeking the constriction around her chest like a snake coiled about her.  I am Robert Shurtliff, she told herself.  She wanted to measure up to these men, to find her place among them.  Lord God, she prayed silently.  Deliver me through this trial.  Grant me faith and strength.  

81yA-ssxkULRevolutionary was a book I probably wouldn’t have read on my own.  I like historical fiction when I read it but it’s not an automatic go-to genre for me. It was our book group pick last month, and I’m glad that it was chosen.  Based on Deborah Sampson, a real life woman who dressed as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, it’s a moving and detailed work of historical fiction with a.

In the final years of the Revolutionary War, Samson (as Myers, a female-to-male transgendered author chooses to call her – turns out he is a distant relative of the real-life heroine) is an unmarried young woman who has fairly recently become free of her indentured servitude.  (Her family life was troubled and they couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she was given away to work as an indentured servant.)  Her community sees her single status as a threat; her only friend is a fellow servant named Jennie.  Having been once discovered trying to pass as a man when she went to go register to serve in the war, a violent attack by a local man has her fleeing the life that she knows in search of freedom and a new identity.  Jennie cuts her hair for her and steals some clothing from her master, and Deborah binds her breasts and leaves in the night, without a real plan but convinced that she’ll be put in jail for what she’s done to her attacker in retaliation.

What follows is an interesting, immersive account of regimental life as Deborah fits in with the rest of the young men (and by this point in the war, some of them are very young, which benefits the whisker-less Deborah.)  How she manages to keep her identity secret is interesting and occasionally requires a lucky break.  But she is stronger mentally and physically then she ever knew, and relishes her newfound freedom to move and live as she pleases even within the restrictions of military life.

I enjoyed this so much more than I anticipated, and was deeply moved by an unexpected turn of the plot 2/3 of the way through.  About 100 pages in Deborah begins to be called Robert in the narrative, the name she has adopted for her new life.  And then again towards the end, it shifts back to Deborah, but this feels entirely seamless and organic with the story.  She continues to correspond as Robert with Jennie back home, a nice narrative strategy.  The reader is made aware of how stifling and hopeless the conditions of an unmarried woman back in the late 18th century were, relegated to a life of drudgery, constantly open to innuendo and the possibility physical and sexual abuse.  I also learned a lot about the late stages of the war and daily life of a soldier.  I thought there were a few instances where the emotional impact of events wasn’t fully explored – for instance, the rape at the beginning didn’t seem to be fully dealt with and I wondered if there was another way Myers could have sent the story in motion.  But overall, this was a good read that explored gender identity in a time period in which people perhaps lacked the vocabulary to acknowledge such things.  4 stars.

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

If I’d not already written my Best Of 2016 list, I would have included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad near the top.  I started reading it December 27 and deliberately held off on finishing it until it was January 1 so that it would be the first book I finish this year.  It will undoubtedly be in my top ten for 2017.28250841

You’ve heard a lot about this book, probably.  Oprah picked it for her book club, even moving the publication date up to do so.  It won the 2016 National Book Award.  It was Amazon’s editors’ pick for #1 book of the year.  You’ve seen it on just about every critical book list.  And sometimes all that acclaim can make a person weary of a book before they’ve even picked it up.  Too much hype.  I know, I have done this myself, avoided a book because too many people love it.  I’ve also avoided books that I feared might be too difficult for me to handle emotionally, which is what I suspected about this one.  Well, I’m here to say that I was wrong.

Is this book sad?  Yes, of course; it’s about slavery, one of the worst, most degrading and cruel periods of human history.  But is it an unrelenting misery-fest?  No.  It’s one of the most suspenseful works of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  I started it late at night; before I knew it I was fifty pages in, and I had to make myself put it down and go to sleep.

I was immediately taken with Cora, the young slave at the center of the book.  She is a marvelous character, an eleven year-old orphan on the Randall plantation in Georgia when her mother, Mabel, runs away.  She is sent to the slave shack with the women who are “not right” in some way, either through accidents of birth or traumatic injury.  She keeps her grandmother Ajarry’s small garden plot at all costs, as it represents the only sense of agency and freedom she has in the little time she has to herself.  She hates her mother for leaving her in the night without saying goodbye.  A violent incident one night at a plantation slave gathering, in front of the plantation’s cruel new owner, leads Cora to accept an offer made to her by another slave, Caesar, to run away with him. Throughout the course of the novel she exhibits an indomitable will to survive, and through her eyes we see some of the worst ways humans mistreated one another in the past 175 years.  All the while she is being pursued by the relentless slave catcher, Ridgeway.

The mosquitoes and blackflies persecuted them.  In the daylight they were a mess, splashed up to their necks in mud, covered in burrs and tendrils.  It did not bother Cora.  This was the farthest she’d ever been from home.  Even if she were dragged away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

You’ve no doubt heard that the Underground Railroad in the book is not just a metaphor for the network of people and structures that sheltered and shepherded runaway slaves, but an actual railway system built underneath the land of the southern states.  Whitehead has created a dazzingly original work, playing not only with historical fact but also speeding up and slowing down time in the places that Cora eventually ends up.  It’s difficult to talk about the plot very much without giving away page-turning twists and turns that reference some of the 20th century’s great injustices to African Americans as well.  I’ll just say that where this book went surprised me.

I’m profoundly glad to have read this, and want to encourage others who may be reluctant to pick it up.  It’s simultaneously a masterful work of imagination and a harrowing portrait of the real horrors of slavery.  But it’s also just a really good story, engaging and captivating, with a fierce, very human heroine at its center.  I rooted for Cora, I hurt for Cora, I didn’t want to leave Cora.  What a marvelous way to begin my 2017 reading.

Have you read this?  Do you plan to?  I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

 

 

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.  (How often do you get to say that?)  It’s a middle-grade novel, published in 2000, and it won the Pura Belpré award, which is the award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. (From the ALA website: The award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.)  I chose this because I was prompted by Naz’s excellent Latinx Heritage Month posts at Read Diverse Books.  This engaging, warm-hearted novel not only made me feel, it made me think, opening my eyes to a chapter of American history I’d regretfully never been aware of.

esperanza_rising_coverEsperanza, a young girl about to turn twelve in 1930, is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher.  She has only ever known a life of privilege, with dresses and dolls and servants to help her bathe and dress.  She is only vaguely aware of the “bandits” who roam the outskirts of the ranch, robbing and killing wealthy landowners.  Esperanza’s mother tells her that even though her father is kind and has given his workers land, many people are still upset about the slow pace of change after the Mexican Revolution ten year before. Esperanza thinks that her father will be saved by his kindness.  But very early on in the book, her father is indeed killed by bandits, and that sets in motion the events of the story.

She and her mother, along with their most trusted servants, end up having to escape one of her father’s evil relatives to a life in a farm camp in California.  It is a dramatically different existence than the one she grew up in.  She has to not only adjust to small and spare living quarters but also an entirely new mindset to survive. Esperanza doesn’t know how to do basic chores, like sweep, wash clothes, or change the diaper of a baby that shares their living space, much less work in fields picking grapes and peaches.  She has to learn not only how to work hard but to adjust her mentality to not condescend to the people she is now among.

Ryan portrays Esperanza not as a spoiled brat but as a sympathetic young woman who is overwhelmed by but trying to understand the difficult changes in her life.  Esperanza meets a girl in a nearby camp named Marta, who is allied with a group of workers who are threatening a labor strike to get better living conditions.  Through Marta the reader learns that the Filipinos, Japanese, and Okies (people from Oklahoma) all live in different camps.

“They don’t want us banding together for higher wages or better housing,” said Marta.  The owners think if Mexicans have no hot water, that we won’t mind as long as we think no one has any.  They don’t want us talking to the Okies from Oklahoma or anyone else because we might discover that they have hot water.  See?”       

This brings me to the most surprising thing I learned from this book.  I can’t recall ever reading or hearing about this in any of my history classes in high school or college.  As Ryan wrote in her author’s note at the end,

The Mexican Repatriation was very real and an often overlooked part of our history.  In March of 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act that gave counties the power to send great numbers of Mexicans back to Mexico.  government officials though this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression (it didn’t.)  County officials in Los Angels, California organized “deportation trains” and the Immigration Bureau made sweeps in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally.  Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born United States citizens and had never been to Mexico.  … It  was the largest involuntary migration in the United States up to that time.  Between 1929 and 1935 at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico.  Some historians think that numbers were closer to a million.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that this happened.  We see local officials in the novel make these deportation sweeps, and some characters are in the thick of the chaos.  After I finished reading this, I googled “Mexican Repatriation” and found an interesting NPR interview with Francisco Balderrama,  the co-author of  Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s.  It illuminates more of the history of this dark chapter of America’s past.  Another link I found is from Yes! magazine, and it appears that a fifth-grade class in Los Angeles conducted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in a bill passed to make teaching of the Mexican Repatriation part of California curriculum.

I am grateful to this novel for enlightening me on a shameful part of our nation’s past, and I also happened to enjoy the reading experience tremendously.  Despite the challenges Esperanza and her family and friends face, this book is not despairing.  It has a lyrical, hopeful quality, with Ryan structuring the chapters by the fruits and vegetables that the farm workers are picking and the seasons’ natural rhythms.  Based on Ryan’s own grandmother’s true story, this is an excellent, fast-paced historical novel for children and adults alike, and a terrific jumping off point for further discussion and education.

 

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

I came to read Marlon James in January 2015, as many people at Book Riot were talking about how amazing his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was.  I thought, Hmm.  A novel about as assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica and Jamaican crime lords – sounds interesting.  It took me a week or so to settle into the heavy Jamaican patois of many of the characters, but once I did, I was HOOKED.  It was a novel with an energy and vitality I had rarely come across before, and I came to care even about the characters who were VERY BAD people.  It ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2015, and I wrote glowingly about it here.  I knew I had to read Marlon James again.  It only took me another 18 months!

But having finished The Book of Night Women this week, I can now safely say that Marlon James has vaulted onto my Favorite Authors list, and I will now read his other novel, John Crow’s Devil, and will seek out everything he writes in the future.

IMG_3587The Book of Night Women is set in Jamaica in the early 1800s on a sugarcane plantation called Montpelier.  The heroine of the novel, to whom we are introduced on the first page, at her birth, is named Lilith.  Her very young mother dies giving birth to her.  She has the most striking green eyes, with an energy that makes most of the slaves want to “leave her in the bush and make the land take her back.”  But the overseer, Jack Wilkins, gets two of the slaves, Circe and Tantalus, to take her in and raise her.  This is a story of Lilith coming of age, harnessing the “uppity” spirit she had from birth, and making connections with the other strong women on the plantation, namely Homer, the venerable head house slave.  But it is also a story of the violence and degradation of slavery in general.  This is probably the bloodiest book I’ve ever read.  However, it is not gratuitous violence – it simply reflects the truth, the awful inhumanity of not only the whites in power, but the “Johnny Jumpers,” black slaves who helped the overseer keep everyone in line, and the “Maroons,” free black mercenaries who live in the bush and capture runaways for profit.

I don’t want to talk much about the plot of the novel for fear of revealing too much, but through Homer, Lilith comes to meet other women with similar green eyes and fearless souls, and among them there is a rebellion plot afoot.  We also meet the young Master of the plantation, Humphrey, and his best friend/right hand man, an Irishman named Robert Quinn.  There is an interesting dynamic about how negatively the English planters viewed the Irish, and Quinn is always cognizant of his second-class whiteness.  He figures prominently in Lilith’s life later in the novel.

There is a pulsating energy to James’s writing, propelling the reader further into the darkness of the narrative.  It was a world that was almost too cruel to believe, yet I know that these things actually happened.  The slaves spoke in the Jamaican patois yet this was not problematic for me; I think it lends an authenticity to the narrative.  Maybe I was more primed for it having read A Brief History.  This novel enthralled me totally, even if the subject matter was hard reading.  It was simply brilliant, and I think everyone should read it.  I’m going to end with some quotations so that you can get a feel for the language and James’s talent.

Lilith, while watching a slave auction in Kingston:

Lilith wonder what running through bush with no chain on you foot or dog coming after you feel like.  And what it feel like to know all of that, then lose it.  Do losing feel different from never having?  Do a captured nigger be a different nigger?  Lilith gone from perplex to melancholy.  She surprise that she never talk to a Africa man or woman before.  Except Homer.  And even Homer, who talk more Africa tongue than most, still don’t talk ’bout the Africa land much.

Homer, speaking to Lilith when she begins secretly teaching her to read:

Me not nobody nigger.  Learn this, when you can make out word, nothing the massa can do will surprise you.  A nigger, he no got nothing.  He got nothing.  But when you can make out a word, that is something indeed.  You know how long me know that Mass Humphrey was coming?  You think ’bout that.  When a bigger can read, she can plan, if is even for just a minute.  Make me tell you something else ’bout reading.  You see this?  Every time you open this you get free.  Freeness up in here and nobody even have to know you get free but you.

(Book number four of my #10 Books of Summer.)