Monday, March 18, 2013

Leaving Tuscaloosa

I'm a sucker for a reference to my old stomping groups, so when I was at the bookstore in Southern Pines for Wiley Cash's reading, my ears perked up when I heard mention of an author coming in the next week or two, Walter Bennett, the author of Leaving Tuscaloosa.  Interestingly, I learn that while Bennett is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Now we share all my sports loyalty locales.

The novel, though, is not a light, breezy Southern read. It's a painful story of racial discrimination and even hatred in the early days of the Civil Rights movement.  The story actually covers only a couple of days, but the events that transpire are earthshaking.  First, one of the main characters, Richebeaux (Bo) Branscomb, is the former high school pitcher who quit the team after hurting a batter, following the coach's orders.  Living with his mother and stepfather, alienated from his father, his options for the future look slim.  He is dating Mem, a popular girl from an affluent family who, he realizes, will be leaving soon for some prestigious university "up North."

The second story line follows Acee, a young black man who once played with Bo in the lumberyard when the two were young, before his father put a stop to their friendship.  Acee's brother Raimond has been stirring up trouble, unwilling to put up with the treatment of blacks in their hometown. Two deaths that occur the same night--the black minister, who dies of a heart attack after becoming the target of the white teenagers' pranks, and the deputy sent to Raimond's house to "check on him," shot to death--set both the white and black community into a frenzy.

The novel dredges up images of the segregated South at its worst, but it also manages to maintain a strong chord of hope in a handful of the young people who are willing to take risks to do what their conscience says is right. Walker manages to draw readers to characters who are complex, torn between loyalties, facing moral dilemmas with no simple resolutions. 

It's a story that will leave readers uncomfortable and restless, grateful for the changes that have taken place over the last seveal decades, hopeful that more positive change will come, even if it happens one friendship at a time.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


We have an on-going discussion in the English department where I teach when we choose a common novel to be read in the English classes during a semester.  Should we choose a novel set in our region, giving our students--many of them reluctant readers--the chance to read a story set in their own familiar territory or should we choose a novel set in another part of the world, letting them become vicarious travelers to places they might not otherwise come to know. In the past, we had chosen Mountains beyond Mountains, the story of Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti. Shortly after, when the devastating earthquake hit that island nation, our students had a  genuine connection and concern.

Since we usually choose a novel in the Spring by our visiting author for the Writers Symposium, the selection is sometimes narrowed by necessity. This spring, for instance, we are reading Wiley Cash's highly successful first novel A Land More Kind than Home, and students are certainly responding positively, even the self-professed nonreaders.

Having just finished Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee, another book that had sad quite awhile on my shelf before I made the time to explore its story, I now lean toward that virtual travel option.  The voice Cleave creates and the story he tells made me think about international immigration issues in a different way.  I've taught long enough to have had lots of experience with students new to this country, often not by their own choice.  I know from their own stories that they were not coming here simply for economic prosperity; many families fled political oppression and life-threatening persecution.

In the novel, Little Bee is a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl who has spent the last two years trying to stay under the radar at a detention center near London.  A paperwork "mistake" orchestrated by a Jamaican detainee sets Little Bee, the Jamaican, and two other young women free--but without paperwork and with nowhere to go, a microcosm of the United Nations, they joke.

She finds her way to the home of a family she met on the beach in Nigeria, an encounter whose details are revealed bit by bit in the narrative, gaining impact.  Her arrival coincides with the suicide of Andrew O'Roark, and she goes that first day with his wife and young son to his funeral.  The story is told alternately by Little Bee and by Sara, O'Roark's wife, the editor of a trendy magazine published in London.  Their son Charlie is going through a phase pretending to be Batman and refusing to wear anything but his costume so he can "fight baddies."

Little Bee's experiences from the detention center, where she realizes she either needs to be beautiful or to know English to survive--and chooses English, on her journey to Kingston on the Thames, and the back story in Nigeria, are heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her cool, calculating mind as she constantly surveys her changing environment, looking for the best way to kill herself if "the men come." 

The book is a story or survival and of sacrifice, and the characters are forced to make life-changing, momentous decisions at a moment's notice.  I suspect that Little Bee's voice will remain in my ear as the immigration debates continue.  I  realize how many difficulties arise when procedure meets individuals.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Brick and Mortar intersects with Google

Classic irony, I suppose, that I am still thinking about this audiobook days after I finished it, in part because I want to find a copy of the book to help answer a few questions.  I'll admit I chose the book because it mentions a bookstore in the title.  The story itself follows Clay Jannon, a young man who ends up working the night shift at a strange bookstore, located next to a strip join, where he discovers that the few strange patrons are not actually purchasing the books on the low shelves in the front but are borrowing the books accessible only by ladder in the tall narrow space in the back.

Clay puts his computer skills to the test and discovers patterns to their book requests.  On his own, he tries to build business with some online ads, drawing only one potential customer--and this is where I need the print copy. I have no idea how any of the names are spelled. (Confession, I even had to look online for Clay's last name.  I'm going phonetic from this point on. Check my spelling.  I dare you) Cat Potente, a devoted Google employee who becomes his girlfriend and his partner on an adventure that leads to a five-hundred-year-old cult seeking answer, possibly answers to immortality, based on the life and the Codex left behind by a sixteenth century printer.

The plot was engaging, but I kept finding myself wanting to find other answers.  Is Gerritszoon the name of a real font? (Answer: Yes, it is.)  Are any of the other historical figures real? (Not sure yet.)  Is the representation of the Google culture accurate?  (I'm VERY curious to find out.)  What was the significance of the last text message Clay sent Cat (re: 25,000 miles)?  That's what I'm googling next!

I had already read of Google's project to convert all print books to digital, so the author had my buy-in there.  I especially loved the conclusion implicit in the novel: Those who love books, words, even individual letters, don't have to choose between one of the other.  It is perfectly acceptable to simultaneously enjoy paper and ink, digital format, and audio. (Whew! What a relief, since I already do!)  I also appreciated the irony that a simple, low-tech process not only succeeded where five hundred years of scholarship had failed but also at what all of Google's channeled resources could not accomplish.  At least for the time being, my world of books is safe and in good hands.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Back to Blood

In his article "Speaking Volumes" in the New York Times Book Review back in November 2012, William Grimes cites Lou Diamond Phillips' performance on the audiobook of Ton Wolfe's Back to Blood as an example of a book that not only translates well in the audio format but that may even surpass the reading experience.  After finishing this rambling story set in a Miami filled with refugees, descendents of refugees and immigrants from everywhere else, I have to agree.  My first experience reading Wolfe was his novel Bonfire of the Vanities (which certainly didn't translate as well to the screen, mainly--in my opinion--because of miscasting).

The protagonist of this story is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban cop thrust into the media spotlight for acts of heroism, but which left him ostracized by his own community, accused of racial bigotry, and relieved of duty. As if that weren't enough, he learns that his girlfriend Magdalena is "seeing other people."  Her "other people" turns out to be her boss, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of pornography addiction, a specialty that frequently lands him on television and that opens doors to Miami high society, and he takes Magdalena along on his sleazy ride.

Wolfe transports readers to the Miami art world, into the lives of Russian oligarchs and art forgers, and the world of Haitian immigrants, some trying to pass as Anglo, and others trying to find a place in black gangs.

In the midst of these diverse multicultural characters, Wolfe also places John Smith, an Ivy League educated, driven rookie reporter who first reports the story of Nestor's brave exploits, "rescuing" a Cuban from atop a boat mast, climbing up and down using only arm strength, while holding the man by his legs. The equally WASP-ish editor of the Miami Herald also appears in the beginning and end of the tale, more as a foil than a main character.

Wolfe's characters are cleverly drawn.  Magdalena, for example, is aware of her lack of knowledge and her ambiguous morality and the way she must appear to others.  Nestor is lovable and defensive, intent on doing the right thing, while trying to stay out of trouble during his probationary period.

Not until the last line of the novel, though, did I realize how hearing the story, rather than reading the story held out the last little nugget of suspense until the very last word.