Monthly Archives: September 2014

All Aunt Hagar’s Children: Stories by Edward P. Jones

All Aunt Hagar's Children2006. Amistad. Paperback. 399 pages.

Recommendation from: Buried in Print

Review:

Edward P. Jones’ novel The Known World has been on my radar for a long time, but for the blogging event, Diversiverse, I decided to pick up his second book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. The fourteen stories in this book all revolve around African-Americans living in and around Washington D.C. The first story takes place in 1901 and the last story is set in the early 1930’s, but all the rest of the stories occupy an unspecified era between the end of World War II and maybe the 1980’s.

I live in the Washington D.C. area, but I’ve never lived in the District proper. Even so, the characters in Jones’ stories remind me of some people I know – from those who have been in D.C. for generations to those who started in the South and then headed north to this city.

The first three stories of All Aunt Hagar’s Children didn’t leave strong impressions, though I liked Jones’ writing and there were nuggets in each of those stories that shone. But the fourth story “Old Boys, Old Girls” gelled together in a marvelous way as it follows a murderer named Caeser as he serves his time in Lorton prison and then is released back into the world. Unlike the first three stories, when the ending rolled around it didn’t feel abrupt or vague to me, but instead perfectly timed.

Other favorite stories include:

“A Poor Guatamalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru” – in this story, the main character continually survives tragic natural disasters and freak accidents while her companions perish. The somewhat supernatural flair of this story was nicely done.

“Common Law” – through the eyes of a neighborhood’s children, a woman sees the beginning and end of an abusive relationship.

“Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister” – This is both a sad and sweet story told from the perspective of a grandfather as he and his wife are finally reunited with their grandson who had been lost in the system after his drug-addicted parents abandoned him.

Through the frequent use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Jones manages to give an epic sheen to each story. While the story may take place primarily in the 1970s, references will be made to an ancestor who was a slave, or to older relatives who met danger in the Jim Crow South and then, alternately, there will be references to a character’s future circumstances.

Jones’ depiction of time’s fluidity is displayed most dramatically in the last story, “Tapestry.” In this story, a young woman living in Mississippi is courted by a man visiting from Washington, D.C. It is the early 1930’s. Jones starts the story with an alternative timeline where the young woman – Anne – marries a different suitor and stays in Mississippi to the end of her days. Then Jones brings the reader back to the actual timeline, where Anne marries the visitor and takes a train with him to D.C. She and her new husband get into a quarrel on the trip, and Jones then takes us into Anne’s mind as she vividly imagines returning to her beloved Mississippi hometown – each house she would pass by, each bend in the dirt road she would take to get back to her father’s house. It’s an extraordinary bit of storytelling, and a perfect story to end the collection.

With this collection, Edward P. Jones joins a list of authors that I believe I can depend on for good storytelling. I’m glad the Diversiverse event gave me a push to pick up one of his books. I look forward to reading The Known World, and also his first short story collection, Lost in the City. Apparently All Aunt Hagar’s Children shares some tertiary characters with Lost in the City.

Diversiverse banner

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Buried in Print – “for those who want the complicated kind of spinning that one usually associates with novel-length works but in a short story…For those who crave a collection of stories that deliberately seeks to represent a diverse set of African American experiences…”

Fifty Books Project – “Jones is so adept at developing his characters that it hardly feels like reading short stories.”
The Millions – “This is writing that is not only beautiful, but strong, compassionate, good, and free. Which is what we mean when we use the term “literature” – or anyway, should be.”

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Review rampage

Lately, it’s been rare that I’ll give a book its own review post. I’ve noticed some other bloggers are tending toward posts of mini-reviews as well – I think it’s a way to keep ourselves in the bookish conversation when we know we don’t have the motivation/energy/time to tinker over longer single-review posts.

So here goes – some end-of-summer housekeeping:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908. 314 pages.)

My mom and I slowly read Anne of Green Gables together when I was very young. I still remember the red bookmark that marked our place, but I didn’t remember much of the book as an adult. My sisters and I were huge fans of the miniseries though, so some of the original story was lodged firmly in my nostalgia. This past June, my friend and I took a vacation to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We both were reading Anne books on the plane ride. Montgomery is prone to some sentimentality, but overall it was a delightful re-read. I loved the friendship and cameraderie between Anne and her classmates. I loved how each concert and outing was such a special occasion for them. I found Marilla to be warmer in the book than she was in the miniseries. I also started Anne of Avonlea while on vacation, but honestly those twins that Marila adopts are such awful characters, and I abandoned it. The miniseries was wise to omit them altogether. On a side note, my visit to “Green Gables” and the site of L.M. Montgomery’s home was lovely (though rainy).

IMG_0705The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. (2009. 372 pages.) Recommended by Presenting Lenore.

This is a YA fantasy novel, of the werewolf variety. I liked that the main character, Grace, was a pastor’s daughter (pastor’s kids, holla!). I didn’t like that there was standard-issue broody love interest who is mostly a jerk to Grace. I liked that Grace tries to search the internet for the paranormal thing she just learned about, and gets completely unrelated hits. (Unlike other YA books I’ve read where the exact mythology they needed was in the first search result. *cough* Hush Hush *cough*.) I didn’t like the somewhat incoherent climactic fight scene at the end. Other than the things I’m writing down here in this review, I don’t think I’m going to remember much about this book in a year’s time.

Proof by Seduction, and the Turner novels (Unveiled, Unclaimed, Unraveled) by Courtney Milan

Proof by Seduction joins The Governess Affair as the top Milan novels/novellas that I’ve read. Not to knock on the Turner novels, as I burned through them. She is just a master of the romance novel.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (2010. 240 pages.)

I enjoyed the movie, and picked up the book on a whim while at the library. It had some intriguing world-building, and I liked the book version of Julie, who is – because it’s a book – much more realized and interesting. I was unconvinced by the climactic moment, though I know that’s weird to say about a zombie romance novel. Sucks that Julie’s best friend Nora was whitewashed for the film, however, as much as I liked Analeigh Tipton in that role.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2006, 599 pages)

I gave this as a gift to my cousin for her birthday. She’d already read it (and liked it) and asked me if I wanted to borrow it. The book is told from the perspective of a woman, Grace Bradley, who had been a young servant on an English country estate during WWI and the interwar years. The narrative toggles between the reminiscing elderly Grace and the young Grace. As I was reading, I found that Riverton strongly reminded me of other books and movies about that time period: shades of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a sisterly relationship that was reminiscent of the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and Julian Fellowes’ work in Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. (Morton’s book predates Downton, but when I read the author interview at the book’s end, I discovered that Morton cited all the other works as influences.) Unfortunately, the similarity of the book to the other works came off to me as derivative. Not to say Riverton didn’t have its moments: in certain scenes, Morton was able to nicely crystallize an atmosphere onto the page.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013, 295 pages.) Recommended by The Captive Reader

I gave this book as a gift to my aunt, who lent it to me after she finished reading it. I read most of it on a car trip and it made me laugh out loud. I found Don Tillman’s narration of his quest for romance to be hilarious. I had doubts about the accuracy of Simsion’s portrayal of Asperger’s, but I’ve seen some reports around the web that seem to give him credit there. Much has already been said about this book, so I’ll just include an excerpt I found particularly funny, from when Don is making dinner for Rosie at his apartment:

I commenced retrieval of vegetables and herbs from the refrigerator. “Let me help,” she said. “I can chop or something.” The implication was that chopping could be done by an inexperienced person unfamiliar with the recipe. After her comment that she was unable to cook even in a life-threatening situation, I had visions of huge chunks of leek and fragments of herbs too fine to sieve out.

“No assistance is required,” I said. “I recommend reading a book.”

I watched Rosie walk to the bookshelf, briefly peruse the contents, then walk away. Perhaps she used IBM rather than the Apple software, though many of the manuals applied to both.

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Cold Hit by Linda Fairstein (1999. 464 pages)

I’d read the first book of the Alexandra Cooper crime novels – this is the third. I like that Fairstein’s background as a prosecutor lends an authenticity and specificity to her protagonist’s work life. For example, while there is the central murder case, Cooper still has to contend with her other cases, work politics, her social life, and a boyfriend. And as the murder victim is part of the art dealer world, Fairstein provides a fascinating inside look there as well. That said, this book ran a little long, tended to info-dump at times, and I really dislike the character of one of Cooper’s cop buddies, Mike Chapman. Not sure if I’ll pick up another from this series.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991. 627 pages.)

This book series has a huge following, but like the laggard I am, I didn’t pick the first book up until right before Showtime aired its tv show adaptation. I spent much of a weekend flying through this book, but after the weekend ended, it took me a while to pick it back up and finish the last bit (where Claire punches a wolf!) Anyway, I really liked the main character of Claire. She was clear-headed and compassionate, and seemed to cope with unexpected time travel pretty well. The story somehow manages to be non-stop things-happening without sacrificing quality character interaction. I’m not in the camp of Claire/Jamie being a favorite literary couple, but I liked them.

**Spoilers for first book** Unlike Claire however, I would have hitched a ride back to my own time without hesitation. Almost getting killed in a literal witch-hunt? Screw that. That said, the scene where she returns to Jamie after deciding to stay in his time was a high point in the novel for me. Also, the part where she sees the Loch Ness Monster was both beautiful and ridiculous at the same time.***End Spoiler**

I’m not sure if I will pick up the subsequent books. I watched the first few episodes of the show with my co-worker, and it hews pretty close to the book, but it’s still gearing up for the good stuff.

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National Book Festival 2014

For ease of reference, authors discussed in this post and their most recent work: Paul Bogard (End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light), Eula Biss (On Immunity), Paisley Rekdal (Intimate: An American Family Photo Album), Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck & Other Stories), Richard Rodriguez (Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography), Louisa Lim (The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited).

This is the tenth year I have attended the National Book Festival, and the 14th year of the festival itself. For the first time, the festival was not held on the National Mall, but in the Washington Convention Center. Like most people, I resist change, and was really disappointed when I heard about the change of venue. Despite having to deal with heat and/or rain some years, I loved the combination of bookish celebration and the vista offered by the Mall grounds.

I arrived at the convention center last Saturday still inwardly grousing. I was also missing my friend Kristin, who had always been part of this annual tradition of attending the festival, but couldn’t make it this year. It didn’t take me long to get over these mixed feelings, as a celebration of books is always a happy occasion.

I first saw Paul Bogard who discussed his book End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. The book is ordered from chapter 9 to chapter 1, corresponding to the Bortle scale, which measures the brightness of the night sky (i.e. the measure of light pollution). Skies over cities would usually measure at class 9 on the Bortle scale, while very remote places may rate a class 1.

Bogard explained that he isn’t against artificial light, but he argued that it’s being used wastefully, irresponsibly and in ugly ways. He displayed some photos which illustrated things like “sky glow” and “light trespass”, as well as the difference between unshielded light and shielded light. There are ways to use artificial light for safety that is more energy efficient, more pleasing aesthetically, and that doesn’t disrupt people’s sleep and nocturnal animals’ habits. Bogard also referenced Paris’ new approach to artificial lighting, as well as Tucson and Flagstaff’s lighting ordinances. I found the talk to be very engaging, and it seemed the rest of the audience did as well, as a number of people approached to ask questions after the talk.

I managed to ford the stream of pedestrian traffic to get to the Poetry & Prose room, where Eula Biss and Paisley Rekdal formed a two-person panel on the subject of creative non-fiction. I chose this session because I’d heard of Biss’ book On Immunity, but came away super-impressed by Paisley Rekdal, who was a new name to me. (To be clear, as the following quotes will show, both authors offered great and intelligent contributions to the panel discussion. But Rekdal ended up being the standout author for me at this year’s festival.)

The session unsurprisingly started with the moderator asking the authors to define creative nonfiction. The authors provided good answers, but the question – while necessary and expected – bored me, so I’ll just jump to some of the cooler comments:

 – Rekdal compared creative nonfiction to photography, in that the work is both artistic and documentary in nature.

– While working on On Immunity, Biss was bothered when someone told her “we don’t speak to the press” because she didn’t consider herself to be “the press.” A little later she said that while there is a relationship between journalism and nonfiction/essay writing, the big difference is deadlines. And she didn’t say that just to be pithy, but because – obviously – if you have more time, there are more angles in which to approach a topic.

– Regarding “facts”: Biss remarked that facts can act as a formal restriction in nonfiction writing. If you don’t want to depart from the facts, you have to figure out a way to work with them in an artistic way. Rekdal added that a fact is not the primary definition of truth. Truth is narrativized.

– One of my favorite comments by Rekdal: she said that connectivity is the primary goal of creative nonfiction. Why does this idea go with this idea? Why is this relevant today?

– Comment from Biss: We don’t have a great vocabulary for truth. We could use, like, 27 more words for it.

– Rekdal, on her recent work Intimate, which is partly about Edward S. Curtis who photographed Native American people in the early 20th century: she found herself bothered by what Curtis chose to photograph or not photograph, and realized it was because he purposely never photographed biracial people as part of his project, and Rekdal is herself biracial.

– Near the end of the talk, both authors praised the small presses  which published their work (Tupelo for Rekdal, Graywolf for Biss), and their editors. Biss said that one of the chapters in her book wouldn’t have existed if her editor hadn’t pushed her in that direction.

I stayed in the room to hear Elizabeth McCracken. As with all the authors I saw at this year’s Festival, I’d never read her books. The only thing I’d read by her was the foreword she’d written for my friend’s book on stillbirth. Despite admitting that her new book of short stories is very depressing (“maybe they should come with medication”), she herself infused her talk with a lot of humor. I liked her comparisons between novels and short stories: novels are reenactments and short stories are dioramas; writing short stories is like a blow to the solar plexus while novels are a long linger illness from which you won’t recover. She remarked that three stories from her new collection are from the same discarded novel, but no one has guessed which three they are, because they have nothing to do with each other. She joked “That just shows you how bad the novel was.”

An audience member asked McCracken which authors she likes to read. Her off-the-cuff answer was a combination of classics and new authors/works: Lolita, Roxane Gay, Cristina Henriquex’ The Book of Unknown Americans, Rose Tremain (I think? or a similarly named author), Edward P. Jones, Lolita again, Dickens.

After meeting friends for lunch in the convention center, we all went to hear Richard Rodriguez. My friend Jenny had a dog-eared, annotated copy of his memoir Hunger of Memory, complete with a fabulously dated cover design. I didn’t know anything about him. He freely admitted during his talk “I’m turning of an age now where I will say anything.” And he did – his talk rambled over a range of topics, from the dearth of local news to women’s liberation to desert religions. I couldn’t always follow his segues, and found the talk subsequently unfocused, but was happy my friend later was able to meet him and get her well-loved copy signed by him.

I had warned Jenny ahead of time that the authors of children’s books tend to have long book-signing lines, and she took my advice and left after Rodriguez’ talk to get a head start on Judith Viorst’s line (author of the Alexander books). My other friend and I chose to attend Louisa Lim‘s talk on a whim. Her topic – the selective amnesia in China regarding the events of June 1989 – was fairly interesting, but I started to feel quite tired then and didn’t take any notes worth relaying here.

As we left the large ballroom, we had to fight our way through a pressing crowd. “Who’s next?” a girl behind us wondered. I recalled that it was Doris Kearns Goodwin and that she had written Team of Rivals, which explained the mass of people. I’m tempted to say, “only in D.C.”, but that is probably underestimating the interest in presidents and politics elsewhere in the nation.

My last stop was the Book Sales area, where I succumbed to temptation and picked up the recent books by Bogard, Biss and Rekdal. This year the Festival’s bookseller was local independent bookstore, Politics & Prose, a nice show of support for indie book sellers.

And that was the end of this year’s National Book Festival experience!

 

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Library Loot

Though I visit my public library regularly, it’s been ages since I’ve done a Library Loot post.

All Aunt Hagar's Children    Hardboiled YoshimotoLost Lake AllenJoe Larry BrownEssential South

All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones

Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto

Though I haven’t signed up for it officially, I remembered that the Diversiverse challenge was coming up soon, so I picked up these two books with that in mind. Edward P. Jones is an author I’ve been meaning to read, and one of the National Book Festival authors name-checked him last Saturday for his great short stories. I have read Banana Yoshimoto before, but a long time ago.

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

I have read all of her other books, and I know I can depend on her for an enjoyable read.

Joe by Larry Brown

This book has been on my to-read list since 2008. Apparently, finding out that it has been made into a movie is the kick I needed to finally check this book out of the library.

Fodor’s Essential South

This was the only book on the shelf in my library’s travel section that included anything about Alabama or Mississippi. My sister and I have been talking about taking a road trip through one or both of those states next year. I have some ideas of what I want to see, but it doesn’t hurt to gather more ideas.

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