Long Division by Kiese Laymon

51mAbD8758L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I read something and when I’m finished I think, “I don’t know if I really got this.”  Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division is one of those books.  I know I would benefit from a reread, and from simply sitting with it longer than my appetite for reading allows.  Even after a book group meeting and discussion, I still don’t think I fully grasp this novel.  It’s a mind-bending book-within-a-book.  We go from 2013 to 1985 to 1964 and back again.  Characters show up and disappear, characters experience and witness violence, there is humor and sadness and time travel and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take from all of this except that I was invested and surprisingly moved in the end.

The book starts out in 2013 with our hero, Jackson, Mississippi high-schooler City (Citoyen) Coldson, getting ready to compete with a few classmates and others in the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Contest, which was “started in 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.”  It’s nearly impossible to set up this novel, so here’s the Goodreads description:

 The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.

Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson–but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called…Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.

City’s two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother’s, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance.

It’s not a long book, despite all the plot elements. There’s different typeface for what’s happening in the present day and what’s happening in the book City’s reading, which helps a bit to keep everything straight.  It tackles serious subjects like race, class, and sexuality, with a sideways dark humor.  It felt alternately playful and serious.  Parts of it, especially at the beginning, reminded me of another book that made me feel dull-witted:  Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.  (Not as outrageous, though.)  I was not prepared for how absorbing this book is – it’s more like a speculative mystery than straight literary fiction. What happened to Baize?  What is City’s grandmother hiding in her shed?  Does everyone make it back to the present day?  I was also not prepared for how emotional I would get reading it.  I know.  I cried, how shocking!  😀 But for most of the book I was kept at a distance by the book-within-a-book format and the dizzying prose, and then – BAM!  The last 30 pages hit me hard.

Make no mistake, this book is using fantasy and humor and meta fiction to talk about race in the Deep South.  A white man in conflict with City’s grandmother says a mouth full with one sentence.

“Y’all mad at something more than me,” he said.  “I ain’t do it.”

There’s a powerful moment where City is in his grandmother’s church, and he’s wondering what the parishioners would think if they knew what his grandmother was doing.  He says,

If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country.  It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church.  When you and everyone like you and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can – not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that I didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.

As I write this, I’ve decided that I must read this book again.  And I’ve got to slow down next time.

 

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Apex Hides The Hurt by Colson Whitehead (#20BooksofSummer 14)

Colson Whitehead intrigues me.  I’ve now read five of his books (I just have Zone One and his two nonfiction works, The Noble Hustle and The Colossus of New York, still to read.)  I read my first Whitehead novel, John Henry Days, somewhere back around 2001 or 2002, which feels like a million years ago.  I remember loving it and feeling moved by it, although the rest of the details are kinda fuzzy. (I really want to reread it.)  Whitehead’s writing is so smart, so cerebral and insightful and often wryly funny.  He fearlessly mashes up genres and challenges me, and I can’t stop wanting to read his work.

51qgfytS15L._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Apex Hides the Hurt is a quirky little book (212 pages) that felt a lot longer, unfortunately.  Our nameless protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant” (irony!) who is hired to help figure out a new name for the town of Winthrop.  The three members of the city council are all pulling him in different directions.  The mayor, Regina Goode, is descended from the original black settlers of the town, who christened it Freedom.  Lucky Aberdeen, software CEO, wants to rebrand it New Prospera and bring in new people and new jobs.  And town eccentric, Albie Winthrop, is descended from the original Winthrop (a barbed-wire manufacturer) who renamed the town after himself.

Our hero is holed up in the Hotel Winthrop over a few days, drinking, talking to locals and conference goers, musing over his recent events in his life which have left him physically injured and jobless.  He engages in a rather funny war with the hotel’s cleaning woman over the state of his room.  We find out that, in his old job as a marketing wunderkind, he came up with the name for a brand of adhesive bandages that were made in various shades of brown and black, to match various ethnicities, called Apex.  We later find out how an Apex bandage figures into his injury and his breakdown.

Isn’t it great when you’re a kid and the whole world is full of anonymous things?  He coughed into his sleeve.  Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it.  All those flying gliding things are just birds.  And etc.  Once we knew the name of it, how could we ever come to love it?  He told himself: What he had given to all those things had been the right name, but never the true name.  For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, beneath the skin we gave them.

This is an interesting book filled with clever observations, dazzling sentences, and quirky conversations.  But it never all came together for me.  I appreciated it.  I’m glad I read it, as I want to read everything Colson Whitehead writes.  But my predominant feeling upon finishing it was one of relief.  2.5 stars, rounded up to three.

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.

 

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia: A Mini-Review

In his earliest memories he was sitting on the floor in the family room, in front of the giant stereo his parents had bought themselves as a wedding present, his face pressed into the padded fabric of one speaker.  The fabric was prickly against his forehead but his nose fit perfectly into a little groove, and he could feel music spilling like molten gold through his entire body.  He’d sit back on his heels when the song was over and his father, an accountant and amateur drummer whose (still-unrealized) dream was to open a jazz club and coffee house, would say, “Order up!” and put another record on the turntable.  His favorite albums were by Earth, Wind, & Fire (syncopation made his brain feel like it was laughing) and Also sprach Zarathustra, its opening rumbling like an earthquake…For six month in 1984, he had asked his parents to play “Stairway to Heaven” instead of a bedtime story.

Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody is a quirky little gem of a novel.  I had put this on my TBR when it came out in 2014, but it soon got buried under an avalanche of other titles and I kind of forgot about it.  Then Gin Jenny of Reading the End wrote a post about it a few weeks ago, and likened it to my favorite childhood novel, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. That was all it took – I instantly perked up and ordered it from another library branch.18263667

I say this is a quirky novel because it’s kind of hard to categorize.  It’s part mystery, part meditation on the power of music, part moving story about loneliness and finding connection, between siblings and between strangers.  The main action takes place over a long weekend at a high school music festival at the Shining-esque Bellweather Hotel in Upstate New York.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, including Harold Hastings, the long-time concierge of the hotel, who’s emotionally and physically stuck in place and time, and Minnie Graves, who is returning to the Bellweather to face a horrible past incident she witnessed there when she was a little girl.  We also meet twins Bert (Rabbit) and Alice Hatmaker, who are participants in the music festival and who are about to graduate high school and face college, perhaps apart for the first time in their lives.  The storylines of these and other characters converge in really satisfying and intricate ways, and everyone is sort of connected to one another even if they don’t realize it.  There’s a creepy mystery that kept me turning the pages involving Alice’s roommate for the weekend turning up missing (and perhaps dead?) and some really sweet stories of characters searching for meaning and fulfillment after years of self-sabotage.  Racculia’s lovely writing about the beauty and power of music also touched me.  I love stories like this, that are all kinds of different things at once.  And it did really feel Westing Game-esque (good job, Jenny!)  This was just a really nice surprise – a fun, endearing novel.

So what are some of your favorite hard-to-categorize, quirky books?  Tell me your picks in the comments.