Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger

When an author scores a home run, writing a major novel that makes school reading lists and book clubs too, the pressure to follow the success must be intimidating. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief was that kind of a publishing success, read by several generations of readers. His choice of Death as his narrator--a benevolent narrator at that--worked on more than a gimmicky level.

The story line was captivating and the creativity with which he developed it made it one of my favorite books.

I Am the Messenger is not Zusak's first novel after The Book Thief, but it came to my attention on Book Page, where I read that it was the one book a particular bookseller recommended to everyone this past year.

The novel opens during a poorly executed bank robbery, where the narrator Ed Kennedy and his three best friends are introduced--Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey. A nineteen-year-old cab driver (who had to lie about his age to get the job) considers himself something of a loser, especially in comparison to his siblings. He often spells out the inventory of his shortcomings. Ed spends his free time in card games with his friends who aren't exactly setting the world on fire either.

Then Ed gets a mysterious playing card in the mail with three addresses written on it but no directions. He has to figure out just what is expected of him. The strange assignments take him through sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartwarming interactions, usually with complete strangers.

One of the best characters is his coffee-drinking, smelly old dog he has named The Doorman. While at times readers may wonder if there might be a little touch of the supernatural, the book remains believable. The ensemble of secondary characters is handled deftly by the author as well.

In one episode he helps a priest in a rough neighborhood to increase church attendance, in part by offering free beer at an after-church social.

Never during my reading did I find myself comparing the novel to The Book Thief. I found myself so caught up in this story that I didn't have to keep looking back down the library shelf.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019 Highlights: Reading to Be Discomfited

A few years ago, I read about some research on the "Theory of Mind"--understanding the mental states of others--particularly the positive benefits of reading literary fiction, in comparison to reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. One doesn't have to deal in psychological research to realize how such reading can increase one's ability to empathize with others, as well as to make inferences.

I have often pointed out to my students that they may have the opportunity to travel to remote parts of the world, but they can never travel far into the past or the future--except in a book.

While my own reading choices vary widely, I sometimes identify patterns. This year in particular brought me some fiction that challenged me to empathize, even when doing so felt uncomfortable. One of the powerful books I read this year was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.  I had heard him at a reading in Nashville when Underground Railroad was first published and added that to my reading list. His latest novel The Nickel Boys follows the story of a young black man whose life takes a turn for the worst because of horrific timing and coincidence. Elwood, a high school student with a hunger to learn, had the opportunity to take college classes, but the driver with whom he hitches a ride is stopped and found to have contraband in the car. Assumed guilty as well, Elwood is taken to Nickel Academy, a segregated school for boys, where the adults in charge cruelly overstep their bounds.

Whitehead opens his story in the present after the school's closing when unmarked graves are discovered--based on the actual case of the Florida School for Boys, where just such a discovery was made in 2011. He then moves back in time to explore Elwood's story and that of some of the other boys he encounters during his time at Nickel.

I also made time to read Angie Thomas' YA novel The Hate U Give, a heartbreaking story told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a young black girl living in a poor neighborhood but attending an exclusive private school. When shots are fired at a party she's attending with her friend Kenya (with whom she shares a half brother), she takes a ride home with Khalil, a friend from childhood. When he is pulled over by a policeman, the stop goes very wrong, leaving Starr struggling to make sense of the two worlds whose line she straddles.

Thomas doesn't tie up loose ends in a pretty bow. In fact, the verdict is reminiscent of the one following the court room scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it results in riots that nearly destroys the neighborhood of the angry rioters. Thomas depicts her characters as many-layered. Starr's father spent time behind bars but has put gang life behind him and runs a successful local business. Her Uncle Carlos, who raised her while her father was imprisoned, is a policeman who must deal with the repercussions of antagonism toward law enforcement in general.

Right on the heels of The Hate You Give, I read Zadie Smith's most recent publication, Grand Union, a collection of short fiction. Her settings shift between Europe and the United States, and many of her characters not only deal with preconceptions based on skin color but nationality as well.

While most of us need more than two or three works of fiction to see the world through the eyes of others unlike us, reading is a good way to start walking in others' shoes.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Matthew Dick's Twenty-One Truths about Love: A Clever Twist with Lists

If I tried to make a list of the factors that lead to my selecting one book over another to buy or to read, I couldn't do it. I do know that when I visited Parnassus Books, Nashville's excellent independent bookstore, right after Christmas, Twenty-One Truths about Love by Matthew Dicks had my attention even though I saw plenty of other books on my "What to Read Next"--and  I have plenty of perfectly good books waiting, unread, on my shelves at home.

In this case, my gut instinct was right. More than just a clever gimmick, the book is told told entirely through lists. These lists are compiled by Daniel, who quit teaching English (at the school where he met his wife in a faculty meeting) to open a bookstore. This is, admittedly, the dream job of almost everyone I know who has taught (or teaches) English, so the book also serves as a warning.

Through his lists, readers discover that the bookstore is losing money, something Daniel hasn't summoned the nerve to tell his wife Jill. In list fashion, he introduces all his characters--his best and worst employees, his family, even the elderly gentleman he meets at Bingo games who becomes his best friend.

Having spent plenty of time in the classroom, I especially appreciated some of the school-related humor: Jill's text messages from faculty meetings, the baby names they reject because of former students with those names. Any teacher understands.

Some of the most poignant details have to do with Jill's deceased first husband Peter, a presence in their marriage with which Daniel has to cope.

After speeding through this book, my booklist just got longer:

1. Anything else written by Matthew Dicks.