Since last we spoke I’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award winner in the fiction category, written by Jesmyn Ward; Duke of Desire, the 12th in the Maiden Lane series, written by Elizabeth Hoyt; and Killer Characters, the 8th (and final) in the Books by the Bay series, written by Ellery Adams. These three are labeled respectively as Literary Fiction, Romance, and Mystery Cozy. I’m not much a fan of labels though I understand their purpose for marketing’s sake, but I feel like with books, as with people, we limit and stunt and marginalize and stereotype by this need to name and define and draw lines. More on that later. First —
(NOTE: If you would like to move directly to my discussion of the books above and skip the context in which I read them, the details of my life, and the musings of my mind, head down the page to the #*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*)
— let me begin by saying I continue my quest to interrupt my life-long proclivity for making lemons from lemonade, trying instead to add a splash of vodka, some ginger beer, and sip whilst taking a deep breath and long pause, finding and enjoying the plus rather than the minus, before indulging in any “woe is me”-ing or “the universe/world is against me”-ing or whining about first world frustrations.
Here comes the “but” you knew was on the way: I am sitting here beneath a lap-robe, feet freezing, my stomach having again started its roiling and cramping (if you’re new here I won’t bore you with the three-year ongoing saga) and although the year-long mystery rash has finally begun to fade, the dermatologist and rheumatologist disagree with one another over why and what to do next, tut-tutting at the diagnoses and guesses of the other, while my primary care practice continues to acquire and shed PAs so regularly I never see the same person twice and so need give them my entire history each time I go for my three-month Wellbutrin renewal. All of which may soon become moot if 45 and his gop-jackbooted-bully-brigade achieve their nefarious undoing of ACA, upending Medicaid and Medicare, at which point I will lose the little access to healthcare I have — which is still a lot more access than many have and for which I am grateful.
This will all, of course, be beside the point once the above mentioned fascist horrors who are now running and ruining (notice, only one letter difference there) the country start imprisoning the LGBTQ, to be annihilated in death camps along with all the other people disapproved of by the white-cis-male power-mongrels, the long-term goal of the gop begun with nixon’s “southern strategy” come long last to fruition.
And all of this is the result — I think — of a concentrated effort by those in power from time immemorial to divide into US and THEM, to convince we peasants that there is enough for us, we who deserve, if only they, those who are not worthy, would stop taking what is rightfully ours. And the next step after propagandizing that divisive foundation, is to spin reality as a competition — a race, a war — to come out on top, in control, with the most. Winning is now paramount, and all talk of morality or righteousness or one or another god directing the way is complete and utter bullshit, hypocrisy made abundantly and inarguably clear by the election of 45, continued support for the ephebophile running for the senate in Alabama, the determined decimation of the safety net for the less advantaged, the refusal to seriously investigate the collusion with foreign powers in stealing the election of 2016, and on and on.
And this is all because we have fallen for the division mythology rather than living in the light and love of recognizing that we are all, at heart and soul, alike. One. Which, too, is why I hesitate to label and categorize books. I love good writing, no matter what the genre. I also get that my taste is mine, and others are entitled to their own; for example, my Mom, who I supply with large print books, reads authors I don’t enjoy at all, whose work I might even categorize as trashy, and that’s okay. See, I watch The Real Housewives of New York, Beverly Hills, and Orange County, which all of my friends find trashy. But, they make me laugh. They make me horrified. They are, to me, camp and parody of all that is wrong with the gop-45-entitled-jackbooted-hater run world in which we live.
We get what we need where we can. And so, 800 words later, what I mean to say is I don’t question that Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves many encomiums and lauds, and I’m all for anything that increases book sales, but it would be great if maybe we could all expand our fields of vision a little wider than just the books that get buzz, win awards, get picked by People magazine and well-reviewed (or, even, reviewed at all) in The New York Times. If we could enlarge our own worlds, read outside the genre and labels we think are our thing, embrace work by authors from other walks of life than just the paths with which we are familiar, then, maybe, just maybe, we could start a revolution of joining?
Maybe, just maybe, trying to see the world through lenses other than our own, will help us all to realize and really live the truth that, ultimately, we are all one. Because, I fear, if we can’t soon get there, to where we are all one, what will be left is that we are all none.
Now, on to the books I’ve read.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Hardcover, 285pp, September, 2017, Scribner
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2017, and written about and lauded by those far more erudite, professorial, and literary-wise than am I, since reading this I’ve hesitated to even share my thoughts, thinking to do so superfluous. Do I think you should read it? Yes. Would I have chosen it for Fiction Award 2017? I don’t think so, because I wouldn’t — couldn’t choose. This is why I think awards are silly. There is no “best book” in any category. There are wonderful books of every kind, books that are someone’s favorite, change someone’s mind or heart or life, open eyes, bring a much needed laugh, have a cathartic effect, but there is no one book that is best for everyone. Too, awards tend to glorify books already in the mainstream, already buzzed, by authors already known (and I’m not saying their fame is undeserved or unearned), while books of equal artistry and beauty languish unread, head to remainder piles and ninety-nine cent plus shipping sale on Amazon.
That said, this book is beautiful, captivating, riveting, unique of voice, glorious of prose bordering on poetry, and much deserving of all the accolades it has received. A pastiche of magic realism, ghost story, history lesson, gothic tragedy, probing sociological examination, road novel, and prose poem, Jesmyn Ward’s lyrical, evocative language is revelatory and her artistry joins what might have been impossibly confused disparate motifs into a panoptic chiaroscuro portrait both intensely personal and universal.
JoJo, a boy on the brink of adolescence, and his baby sister, Kayla, are taken on a road trip by their drug-addicted black mother, Leonie, to pick up her white husband, Michael, about to be released from Parchman prison. Michael’s cousin murdered Leonie’s brother, whose ghost comes to her when she is high, and at Parchman, Jojo begins to be stalked by the ghost of Richie, who was a doomed prisoner in Parchman with Jojo’s beloved grandfather, Pop, and uses Jojo to get back to Pop so he might tell Richie of his fate, of his death, so that he could be released from the netherworld in which so many unburied souls are trapped, their songs unable to be sung.
There are more characters, more complications, layer after layer of connection and disconnect, an epic of multiple epochs, a richness and depth of biblical, Proustian size, miraculously communicated in a book less than 300 pages long. There is so much beautiful language, to begin quoting is dangerous, so I will share just this paragraph, near the end of the novel, which is as beautiful as an aria of grand opera. Listen to the ghost of Richie explaining what he sees:
Across the face of the water, there is land. It is green and hilly, dense with trees, riven by rivers. The rivers flow backward: they begin in the sea and end inland. The air is gold: the gold of sunrise and sunset, perpetually peach. There are homes set atop mountain ranges, in valleys, on beaches. They are vivid blue and dark red, cloudy pink and deepest purple. They are yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas. Some of the homes are clustered together in small villages: graceful gatherings of round, steady huts with domed roofs. And there are cities, cities that harbor plazas and canals and buildings bearing minarets and hip and gable roofs and crouching beasts and massive skyscrapers that look as if they should collapse, so weirdly they flower into the sky. Yet they do not.
This continues and builds for another paragraph and a half until the vision disappears and then:
Then darkness. I look to my left and see that world again, and then it is gone. I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle.
Absence. Isolation. I keen.
Though it may be the voice of a ghost child, an innocent denied the life he deserved, it is the song unsung of every human being who has suffered the incomprehensible loss of self in a world they cannot seem to understand, the wail and moan of longing for a place of peace only imagined, never experienced.
Yes, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a brilliant book, a book written from the soul that speaks to the soul and worthy of all praise. Though, as I said, I am not fond of the good/better/best ratrace, certainly this is among the best books of the past year.
Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane 12), Elizabeth Hoyt, Mass Market Paperback, 308pp, October 2017, Grand Central Publishing
Lady Iris Jordan is kidnapped, a case of mistaken identity, and while being carried away from the scene of her planned debauching by a beautifully formed one of her supposed captors, she shoots him, only to find he is her rescuer. Both of their lives are now in danger for having crossed The Lords of Chaos, and so she and The Duke of Dyemore wed to save her reputation and her life. But this does little good and they are both pursued, captured, in danger, and finally, in love, secrets revealed, promises made, passions surrendered to (a lot) in this marvelous addition to Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series.
Killer Characters (Books by the Bay Mysteries #8), Ellery Adams, Paperback, 274pp, May 2017, Berkley Books
Olivia Limoges is a restaurant owner, aspiring novelist, member of the Bayside Book Writers’ group, and recently married to local police chief, Rawlings. Another member of the Bayside Book Writers, Laurel, is accused of murdering her husband’s mistress, the hospice nurse for his dying mother who never had a kind word for Laurel. Before long another murder occurs, connected to the first, and the Bayside Writers set about clearing Lauren, endangering themselves, crossing Olivia’s husband, Chief Rawlings, and putting themselves in danger — for one, mortal danger. This is the last in what seems to have (deservedly) been a popular series and I quite enjoyed it, and I wonder how much more I’d have liked it if I had grown to know the characters and the town of Oyster Bay through the preceding seven installments? I figured out whodunnit fairly early, but I was still surprised by the ending. Nicely done if a bit heavier and darker than most mystery cozies.
So, there we have it: one prizewinner and two final installments in popular series. Wildly different reading experiences, all enjoyable in their own way, each with something unique to offer, all worth a read if they are your kind of thing. And maybe, even, if you don’t think they would be, give them (or something else outside your comfort zone) a shot. Make the world bigger and kinder and more open and embracing by starting with the books you read.
It can’t hurt. And it might help. And it’s laudable.
And here I am, going. Love and light, dear ones.