The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines

It’s rare to find a book that is not only a book that needs to be read widely and right now and is also a masterly work of fiction. I find books-of-the-times to be, usually, too preachy or too worried about conveying a message at the expense of plot and characterization. In The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines, I found a book that can do both.

This book will grab every readers from the first pages, when Brady Sims stands up in a courthouse and shoots his son right after the son has been sentenced. Sims then tells the men who were escorting his son back to jail to have the sheriff give him two hours before coming after him. Understandably, everyone in the courthouse is stunned. They know Brady. He casts a long shadow in this southern town, especially among the Black inhabitants. So why would he do such a thing?

That’s what our narrator, a Black reporter who lived away from the town for a while before returning. The reporter’s White boss tells him to write up a “human interest” story on Sims—presumably to help the Whites understand what the hell just happened. The reporter goes out to gather information, after telling the sheriff that he doesn’t know what’s going on or where Sims went. When we arrive at the reporter’s source of information (the local barbershop), it becomes clear that he know a lot more than he told the sheriff. The rest of the story unfolds while the men at the barbershop tell Sims’s story.

I said The Tragedy of Brady Sims was a book for right now. What I mean by that is this book is, underneath the surface story of chasing after Sims and getting his story, about how Black people are expected to police themselves in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has done important work raising the national (especially the White) consciousness about how often Black people are killed by police officers. Young Black children are often taught by their parents how to deal with police so that they reduce their risk of being shot and killed. In this novel, Brady Sims is the one who teaches the Black children of this town to police themselves. He’s a bogeyman who will come after kids if they put a toe out of line and then beat them until they’re too scared to do it again.

As the reporter sits in the local barbershop, the men who tell him about Sims are all very knowing. They know exactly what happened and why. None of them appear saddened or angry. They seem more resigned than anything else. Sims’ story is tragic, certainly, but not as tragic to me as an entire population who can accept the sudden, violent death of a teenager who got in trouble with the law. The Tragedy of Brady Sims says so much in an astonishingly small number of pages.

I hope this subtly instructive book gets all the attention as it deserves.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 29 August 2017.

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend this to relatives who don’t understand Black Lives Matter and/or say racist things at family gatherings.

The Veins of the Ocean, by Patricia Engel

Most of the reviews and summaries I’ve seen for Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean are, to put it mildly, off-putting. To be fair, the book does open with a horrific, shocking crime and I picked up the book expecting to be about that crime. Instead, I found a meditative book about the consequences of incarceration, captivity, and the prisons we build for ourselves through guilt and obligation. This book is so full of food for thought that I read it in one day.

Reina is a dedicated sister. It’s no wonder that she’s devoted to her brother Carlos, considering that her mother has been on the look out for a new man to keep her since Reina’s father hanged himself after trying to drown Carlos by throwing him off a bridge into the ocean. Even after Carlos commits a similar crime and is sentenced to death, Reina visits and helps pay legal fees for seven years. When Carlos hangs himself in his cell, Reina is cut loose and heads down to the Florida Keys, planning to start a new life where no one knows what her brother did.

All of this happens in the first third of The Veins of the Ocean and serves as a launching point for Reina to come to terms with the tragedies of her family’s past and her role in Carlos’ crime. The narrative and Reina’s mind constant return to what the men in her family have done and Carlos’ time in prison. Reina’s sense of guilt leads her to punish herself, to retreat from relationships and life. It’s only after she meets Nesto in the Keys and starts to work at a dolphinarium that she begins to come out of her self-imposed prison.

The parallels between Carlos’ incarceration and Reina’s punishment of herself grow as we learn more about Nesto’s ties to his family in Cuba and the behavior of a rescued dolphin in the dolphinarium. As the novel developed, I started to see a book that wasn’t so much about the awful choices we face and crimes we might commit, but rather stories that warn against imprisoning living things. The dolphin and Carlos were not meant to be kept in solitary cages; they slowly go bad. Reina and Nesto’s prisons are more complicated, because they are self-imposed. Both of them are deeply tied to their families. Nesto wants his family to escape Cuba the way he did, but he is constantly thwarted by bureaucracy and his ex-wife’s fear of change. Neither he nor Reina can move on with their lives until they learn to let go.

I was very moved by The Veins of the Ocean and will be thinking about it for a long time. Arguing that captivity is destructive is fairly simple, but Engel complicated things for her characters to create rich ethical dilemmas. Carlos killed a child and must be punished. But is locking him in solitary for seven years just? Is the rescued dolphin safer in captivity even though it can’t adjust to the tedium? Should Reina and Nesto cut their ties to family because their families are preventing them from finding happiness? The Veins of the Ocean has so many delicious questions to think about. It’s the kind of book I can see myself pushing on other readers, just so that I have someone to debate with.

Bibliotherapeutic Note: Recommend this book for readers who are trapped by toxic family situations or who otherwise need to learn to put down the burdens that are keeping them stagnant.

The Guineveres, by Sarah Domet

The girls in Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres have so much going against them. They’ve been abandoned by their parents to the tender mercies of Catholic nuns. The nuns do their best, but their best includes lectures on how sinful these girls are and lots of punitive chores. The girls are always a little hungry, a little cold, and have to go without the comfort of anyone’s affection. Their only goal is to escape the convent, but most of their plans are like unfunny versions of the Underpants Gnomes’ planThe Guineveres, narrated by Vere, covers the last years the four Guineveres lived at the convent and how they eventually left.

The four Guineveres became friends only because they all share the same given name (they use very different nicknames). Otherwise, they are very different. Vere, the first Guinevere to arrive at the Convent of the Sisters of Supreme Adoration, is very quiet and religious. She hopes that her mother will someday come back for her, though the hope dwindles every year. Ginny is more lively. She came to the convent after her father murdered his wife and her lover. Win is physically tougher, but she struggles with her mother’s disappointment and other peoples’ scorn. Gwen is the most troubled of the four. I wanted to kidnap her and hand her over to a feminist therapist for most of the book.

When we meet them, the Guineveres are executing a plan to escape the convent in a parade float. It fails, of course, and the girls end up assigned to the sick ward to care for the aging inmates. Near the middle of their punishment term, five comatose soldiers arrive at the convent. No one knows who they are other than they are British soldiers. We don’t even know which battle they were wounded in, though we know that they were wounded near the beginning of the war. One of the soldiers does wake up and another girl (not one of the Guineveres) is sent to care for him during his convalescence. Seeing this leads the Guineveres to hatch a new plan: they “adopt” a soldier and will go home with him as a nurse when he wakes up. The plan is full of holes but the girls put all of their hopes into praying for the soldiers to wake up.

Over the course of the book, Vere reveals more about the Guineveres’ histories, incidents at the convent, spiritual crises, and how the girls ultimately grow apart. (She also gives us hints about life after the convent, years later. The hints are alternately comforting and heartbreaking.) Many chapters at the beginning of The Guineveres are told in the first person plural. It takes a while to learn who the girls are as individuals, especially Vere. Vere was very much a part of the collective of the Guineveres. The pressure of wanting to escape by any means necessary, however, causes the group to fracture and splinter apart.

The Guineveres is an amazing psychological study. Domet has a knack for slowly developing a character while seeming to be very upfront with details. Vere hands out facts and backstory, but it’s the characters’ actions that fully reveal who they are and what motivates them. This is also a very sad book about how girls can break when their guardians’ “good intentions” end up twisting their psyches. (One can easily read The Guineveres as an anti-Catholic story but I chose to read it as an example of an old version of Catholicism that hopefully doesn’t exist anymore.) Between the character portraits and the gender issues, this could be a brilliant book club books.

The Tusk that Did the Damage, by Tania James

Though brief, Tania James’s The Tusk that Did the Damage is powerfully affecting. I read it in two sittings because I couldn’t get enough of the characters, the story, and the profound questions the novel asks. The novel begins with the voice of Gravedigger, a notorious elephant in southern India. As he tells his story, we also hear from Manu, the brother of an elephant poacher, and Emma, a documentary filmmaker. Through these three narrators, I explored the conflicts between animals and humans, conservationists and poachers, ethical people and the opportunists. The fact that there are no easy answers in this book help make The Tusk that Did the Damage one of the most brilliant books I’ve read lately.

Gravedigger is an orphaned elephant who was taken from the side of his dead mother (killed for her tail) to work as a ceremonial elephant; he is decorated and transported around southern India to take part in noisy, crowded temple ceremonies. He is variously cared for and abused by his human handles until the day he snaps and starts killing people. He is known as Gravedigger because he covers the bodies of people he killed. (This is, apparently, not uncommon. I knew a bit about elephants and their behavior from two podcasts from Caustic Soda. I recommend listening to these episodes before reading the book.) It’s hard to tell how old Gravedigger is, though it quickly becomes clear that he and the two human narrators are going to collide before the end of the novel.

Manu, the poacher’s brother, is a farmer in Sitamala, a small village near a protected forest. His brother made money killing elephants and selling their ivory until he was caught and served four years in prison. Through Manu’s perspective, we learn of the marginal life of Sitamala’s farmers. Bad weather and bad luck can ruin them. The work requires all the farmers’ strength and time. Getting ahead in life is difficult. It’s little wonder that Manu’s brother turns to poaching to try and get out of the daily, yearly grind. Manu does not sympathize with his brother. He wants to live and let live as much as possible.

Emma, in India with her partner Teddy to make a film about forest rangers who save elephant calves, is the most naive of the three narrators. Being a privileged American, she has little idea of what motivates the people around her. To her credit, she tries, but she mostly ends up bewildered by poachers and by the sometimes unethical behavior of the forest rangers. I felt that Emma’s perspective gave me insight into the possibly Sisyphean struggle of conservation. How many of the those elephant calves would later be killed for their tusks? Would Emma and Teddy’s documentary do anything concrete to help India’s elephants?

Among the many Bible verses that still bother me, years after I turned atheist, is this one from Genesis:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth…Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (KJV, Genesis, Chapter 1:26 & 28)

This passage is paraphrased by one of the secondary characters to justify the killing of elephants for their ivory, and I found myself thinking of it often while I read this book. Even though The Tusk that Did the Damage is set in southern India, many of the characters have an adversarial mindset towards the forests and animals they share their patch of earth with. The natural world is either for profit (mining, timber, ivory, bushmeat, etc.) or an enemy (elephants that kill humans). Only a few characters fight the uphill battle against poaching.

The Tusk that Did the Damage is a gloomy book, but I think it’s more effective for all that. Clear victories and happy endings would have felt cheap and unearned. As a reader, I was pleasantly surprised by the gritty twists and turns in the plots. Nothing James did was expected, but it all felt right somehow. I also very much appreciated Gravedigger’s tragic story. Putting a reader inside the head of a character is one of the most powerful ways of generating empathy and empathy for the other creatures we share the planet with is something we badly need. It’s time to stop dominating and subduing the living things that moveth upon the earth before they’re all gone.

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube

I started reading Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light at about nine o’clock on Friday night. The next thing I knew, it was almost one o’clock in the morning. Only the fact that I had to be at work the next morning prevented me from staying up until I had finished it. I was hooked from the very first chapters—partly because the book reminded me sharply of events in my own life and partly because there are so many brilliant character studies. The novel turns, subtly and heartbreakingly, on questions of hardship, parenting, love, and resilience. I was not prepared for how hard this book would hit me.

The first three quarters of On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light belong to Harriet Baggs. Harriet is an eleven-year-old who has had to grow up too quickly over the last six years. Her brother, Irwin, was born with hydrocephalus and requires constant supervision. He’s been in and out of the hospital since he was born. The expense and strain of caring for him split up their parents. Harriet, her brother, and her mother now live in low-cost housing, surrounded by curmudgeonly seniors and angry or depressed single mothers. They also share space with Harriet’s mother’s boyfriend, who is terminally broke and who Harriet views as an interloper. Harriet is surprisingly self-reliant. She makes money running errands for the seniors in her building. On the surface, she’s making it. Underneath, Harriet longs for the affection she used to get from her mother before Irwin was born. The loss of feeling loved, coupled with the fact that the adults in her life constantly misunderstand her, is making Harriet grow angry and bitter.

Poor Harriet. She’s prickly and foul-mouthed, but I felt deeply for her. The adults in her life, with the exception of a few of the seniors, have let her down badly. Her parents constantly make excuses and shift blame to others for their shortcomings. They ask (or, more often, tell) her to be less angry, morbid, and weird to make their own lives a little easier, not realizing how much Harriet does to keep things going sort-of smoothly. She appears to be so capable no one really sees how sad she is.

Harriet may strike some readers as far too precocious for an eleven-year-old. I wasn’t particularly bothered. She spends so much time with the strange, motley crew of seniors that I didn’t find it surprising that she could understand the beauty of William Blake, believe in the chance of a better life through reincarnation, or create sophisticated mixed-media. She’s chronologically 11, but her personality is a lot older. As I learned more about her, the more I wished someone would give Harriet a long hug and just listen to all her thoughts for a change.

The last quarter of On the Shores of Darkness, There is Life shift to Irwin and are set about nine years later than the first three quarters. Irwin, now 14, struggles with his condition (seizures, nausea, learning disabilities) and depression. On top of it, he has a very convoluted and dysfunctional family. The bright spot for him is his little sister (born to his father and his now second ex-wife), who is as devoted to him as he was to his older sister, Harriet. I can’t say too much about the last part of the book without giving away too many details of the gut punch Strube delivers at the end of Harriet’s part of the novel.

As I read this book, my thoughts kept returning to the idea of resilience. Some of the characters have a bit of grit to them. They can move on from terrible losses and injuries. On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, however, is about what we can learn from the characters who, for whatever reason, cannot move on. We watch them as they fail to recover and become trapped either in thoughts of how their life was better before or with fantasies of the perfect life. By the end, I found I couldn’t judge any of them—though some of the characters made me very angry indeed. This book is one of the most human stories I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 April 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to teenagers who feel misunderstood and to the parents of those teenagers.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

18079683Is there any relationship so fraught as the one between mothers and daughters? There is so much emotional, cultural, and historical baggage just waiting for the moment when a mother and daughter first set eyes on each other that its no wonder Freud had so much material to work with when he was starting his practice. There are mothers and daughters all over the place in Helen Oyeyemi’s magical novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. The relationships are further complicated by race and aesthetics and the legacy of abuse. This is the kind of novel that English majors dream of. It’s so full of meaning just waiting to be unpacked, but it’s also written so that you could share it with your non-English major friends and—for once—they won’t think you mental when you natter on about how much you enjoyed reading it.

Boy Novak runs away from her violent father, the rat catcher, one night in the early 1950s. She uses all the money she could find to ride a bus to the end of its line in Flax Hill, Massachusetts. She has no practical skills. She doesn’t rely on her startling beauty to attract a mate—though many of the other characters suspect that’s what she’s up to. She eventually marries Arturo Whitman, but she doesn’t love him. They suit each other. Boy moves in with widower Arturo and his daughter, Snow. The trio are content until Boy becomes pregnant. Once her daughter, Bird, is born, the delicate balance in the Whitman family is destroyed.

Bird’s skin color reveals a secret the matriarch of the Whitman clan was hoping to hide from the world. The Whitmans are, in the eyes of society, “colored”—but many of them have pale enough skin that they can “pass” for white. Even in Massachusetts, that still matters. Snow is pale, too, and many of the older members of the family treasure her and spoil her. Boy fears that they will shun or mistreat Bird because she reminds them of their origins. So she has Snow sent away to live in Boston with her aunt and uncle.

Reviewers of Boy, Snow, Bird, have remarked that this novel is a retelling of the Snow White story. It is, but I saw the fairy tale as the framework under this amazingly layered narrative. Fairy tales and folk tales appear throughout the novel. All of the stories are about beautiful women and the price they pay for that beauty. It’s impossible to read these stories without wondering what the characters mean by telling them. Oyeyemi’s characters cry out for psychoanalysis; they all have mother issues.

Unlike in Snow White, there is no clear villain. Oyeyemi’s novel is narrated in turns by Boy and Bird. Because you’re inside their heads, you’re told why they act the way they do. Boy’s actions—even though I think they backfire—make sense. Not that she’s entirely justified in her actions, of course. Snow also gets to have her own say, in the form of letters to Bird during the last half of Boy, Snow, Bird. I loved that Oyeyemi did this because it throws shade on a character everyone thinks is perfect. Oyeyemi has lifted characters out of a fairy tale and made them real people.

The more I write here about Boy, Snow, Bird, the more I also think this would be a perfect book for a good book club. There is so much to talk and think about in this book!