A good crime novel is often as much about place as it is about characters and plot. Raymond Chandler is telling us not just about some caper gone wrong, he’s telling us about Los Angeles. Same with Richard Stark and New York City and, in the present case, Attica Locke and East Texas.
Clearly, Locke knows this area well. The story of a two murders, likely racially motivated, in a small town, and the investigation that follows feels deeply rooted in the details of food, music, and geography that give this book its weight. The black Texas ranger, the black small business owner, the white landowner and cops live in a real place, even if the town in this book is actually fictional.
In the hands of a lesser talent this book could have been clichéd or doctrinaire, but Locke is a smart, nuanced, writer (incredibly, this is her first novel) and she tells this story of racism, violence, and betrayal incredibly well. It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t put it down.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
I read and loved Salvage the Bones, Ward’s first novel about a poor black and rural family preparing for hurricane Katrina. And I read, and cried, over her memoir Men We Reaped. But this, her latest about mothers and her children, about prison, about drugs, about race and violence and history and the ghosts that haunt us (and keep us company) is by far her most powerful work.
The plot focuses on JoJo, a thirteen year old boy by turns taken care of, and taking care of his drug addicted parents, his baby sister, and his maternal grandparents, while wrestling (literally and figuratively) with the ghosts of his family, and America’s history.
I’m generally not one for magical realism, but Ward does the supernatural elements here with such grace, and such beautiful language, that they seem essential. Of course there are ghosts here, haunting Parchment Farm. How else could it be.
I read this book some time ago now, but I still remember the moment, on a packed train, when I finished it, almost crying, looked up at the dirty roof of the subway car and whispered to myself “holy shit”.
Its that good.
Zami: A New Spelling of the Name
The autobiography of one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. The story of a first-generation immigrant, a visually impaired girl, who dreamt of things far beyond what her mother could imagine. The story of a woman who read, and wrote, and worked the factory floor. Who discovered her sexuality in a time where that had to be done in secret for fear of physical violence.
A book written with an authentic, though at times almost detached, voice. A story of coming to terms with who you are as a writer, as a lesbian, as a feminist, in a New York City that was changing rapidly, but still very unwelcoming.
A window into a world I would never otherwise see.
A must read.
This book came out more than ten years ago, when the modern-day prison abolitionist movement was surging on the left, powered by groups like Critical Resistance and intellectuals like Davis. I was part of that world and I’m a little embarrassed it took me this long to read this.
This is make, no mistake, a polemic. But it is also well done arguing the case that we need not just prison reform, but prison abolition. That the institution cannot be reformed, but instead must be abandoned. It’s a radical, idea, of course. But one worth taking seriously.
There’s nothing that says we must imprison those who break societies laws. Other forms of restorative justice and mediation should also be considered. Davis makes the cases for these alternatives to incarceration eloquently and succinctly in this slim volume and while I don’t also agree with her, I always find her compelling. Too often today we tune out the voices that don’t align exactly with our own opinions. That’s a mistake. Take the concept Davis is arguing (that prisons are barbaric and should be replaced) seriously. Listen to her arguments, look at her sources, and decide what is valid and what isn’t. You’ll be a better citizen for it.
Worth a read for those interested in criminal justice and a just society, which, really should be all of us.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir
There may be other American writers working today who are as gifted as Ward, but I have a hard time believing there are any more gifted. From fiction to memoir, Ward consistently leaves me at the edge of tears at the raw emotion of what she is sharing, and the technical brilliance with which she does it.
This is a memoir. It is the story memorializing the dead men from her hometown in rural Louisiana. All the men here were young, all died unnatural deaths, and all were black. None of that should surprise you, young black men in our country die at shameful rates. How this comes about is what Ward is struggling to explore.
The story focuses on the untimely death of Ward’s brother, but it comes to his death last, as a sort of culmination of a series of events, all related in one way of another, that hit Ward’s community over the span of a few short years. The book is pitch perfect in balancing reportage with anguish, making us feel the loses Ward suffered, personally, with every death, while also not losing sight of the larger story here – that our society sends young black men to the grave with alarming regularity.
All of Ward’s books are worth reading. She is truly among the best living American authors, but this one feels the most necessary, the most urgent, of what she has done so far. If you’re going to start anywhere with Ward’s work, I suggest you start here. But keep going, she has much to share.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
A gut punch, a wake up call, a deeply effecting book about race, sexual assault, food, immigration, class, writing, love and America. Really a must read.
I’m someone who cares deeply about health and fitness. I struggle to make the right food choices, and hit the gym, but my personal issues are put into stark relief as the cloying bullshit problems of a privileged white dude when held against Gays heartrending and inspiring story.
This is a story of growing up the child of immigrants, of suffering horrible sexual assault, and struggling with that, and more. Its about coping with lives horrors with food, both for comfort and protection.
It’s also the story of a powerful writer finding her voice through years of work and struggle and missteps and luck.
It is near perfectly written in Gay’s direct to the jugular style.
I couldn’t put it down.
You might not think of yourself as the kind of person who would read a memoir that is, at least ostensibly, about weight problems, but really it is about so much more. And you are the kind of person who reads important, powerful, books and you should read this one.
Salvage the Bones
Stunning prose. A look into a world (rural, black, deep south) that is not often depicted in literature. Really, really good.
Salvage the Bones tells the story of a young girl and her family and community as they prepare for, and endure, Hurricane Katrina. The sense of dread that permeates the first part of the book sets in even deeper when you realize (a) that they have no idea how bad things will get and (b) that other calamities and challenges unrelated to the storm are also coming down on this struggling family.
Ward writes with a clarity that is awe inspiring. She says Faulkerner was an inspiration, and you tell. The writing is crystal clear, yet beautiful. Slow burning, yet, I couldn’t put it down. This was the first book by Ward that I read, but within months, I’d go on to read two more.
If you want to see the future of the American novel depicting a part of the world rarely shown, read this.