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A Few Reading Highlights—Midway Through 2022

This seemed like a good time to say something about a few of the best books that I have read this year which have not made it into Vertigo yet. Just as a reminder, every book I read during the year receives a short write-up on my 2022 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of this blog. Of the more than fifty books that I’ve read so far this year, I felt that these seven really stood out and deserved a little extra attention.

Eloísa Díaz. Repentance. Aberdeen, NJ: Agora Books, 2021. In the midst of the city’s December 2001 riots, Buenos Aires police Inspector Alzada finds himself with a delicate murder case that takes an unexpected turn, forcing him once again to come to the aid of his brother. Twenty years earlier, when he was a young policeman and his brother belonged to an anti-government guerilla group, he barely managed to keep his brother’s name off a list of those who were going to be disappeared by the regime. Now his brother is in trouble with the new regime, and Inspector Alzada has to risk everything (as book publicists like to say) to try to save his brother once again. Díaz’s first novel toggles back and forth between two dangerous periods in Argentina’s history with such ease that time, history, and memory become beautifully compressed and blurred. Repressive regimes (think Berlin) always seem to provide perfect backdrops for noir novels like this, and Díaz creates a Buenos Aires that is both stiflingly claustrophobic and yet rippling with energy as the anti-government protesters gain confidence. Nicely written with several well-drawn characters.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] One hot summer day in the South, a young Black man named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North, starting a movement that leads the state’s entire Black population to follow him Northward. Kelley’s fearless novel is told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community. As the Black migration takes place before the puzzled, if not astounded eyes of the white community, we are given the backstory both for Caliban and for his rich, white counterpart, Dewey Willson III. Kelley’s brilliant book is leading up to the ultimate Southern question: What would the South be like if all the Blacks left? It’s only during the last few pages, as the last Black man is about to leave, that the white community suddenly realizes that this is the question they are being asked, and they panic. This is Kelley’s debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to find that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There’s a bit of devil-may-care attitude about the mechanics of the story that constantly remind you that Kelley has his eyes on something bigger than tidying up the fine points of his plot.

Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. Leo, the book’s narrator, doesn’t know what to believe when his wife fails to return from a trip to Norway. Instead, a man shows up who claims to be a half-brother of hers that Leo has never heard about before and cannot verify in her absence. I don’t normally enjoy books of suspense where tension seems to be the main benefit for the reader. But Lester’s writing is smooth and she doesn’t artificially amp up the drama, so she managed to win my confidence and continuously tickle my curiosity. With each advance in the plot the mystery grew and a new surprise always seemed be around the corner, tightening the tension very slowly. I confess I enjoyed this to the very end. Mostly abstract photographs by Andrew Gurnett at the beginning of each chapter give a visual preview of the ominous level of what is to come.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains one of my current favorite writers of police procedurals, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. The Heretic is not much better in this regard, but at some point I just give up and let myself enjoy McIlvanney’s writing, pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. He is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his or her head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown. I won’t even try to explain the plot involving Glasgow, Scotland Detective Duncan McCormack, a deadly tenement fire, the body of a politician that turns up in a dumpster, and a crime lord with whom McCormack seems to have an unhealthily obsession. But it all makes for a few hours of good reading.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. Sometime in the 1850s, a Black mother and her nine-year old daughter Ashley were sold separately at a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, never to see each other again. Before the auction, the mother managed to give a sack containing a ragged dress, a handful of pecans, and a lock of her hair to her daughter. In 1921 the woman who inherited the sack embroidered a brief narrative of less than sixty words on it, explaining that her great-grandmother Rose had given it to her grandmother Ashley. Rose told Ashley “It be filled with my Love always.” Using the sack as material evidence and those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and a couple of artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston, and the likely life for her and for the African American generations that followed her survival. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a wisp of evidence, but Miles’ book epitomizes the new direction of scholarship today—cooperative and not afraid to employ the imagination. Miles draws on a wide variety of disciplines: history, genealogy, literature, environmental history, botany, art history, and probably one or two more that I have forgotten. Plus, the book contains a color “visual essay” called “Carrying Capacity,” showing the artworks made by the artists who were engaged to respond to Ashley’s sack, its contents, and the key themes that it raised. Every page of Miles’ book is eye opening.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and desperate, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. It feels wrong to think of this a book of love poetry, since the poems are really, at heart, just as much about relationships, and the difficult, high wire act that they represent. There’s no safety net in this book. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

The way you slam your body into mine reminds me
I’m alive, but monsters are always hungry, darling,
and they’re only a few steps behind you, finding
the flaw, the poor weld, the place where we weren’t
stitched up quite right, the place they could almost
slip right through if the skin wasn’t trying to
keep them out, to keep them here, on the other side
of the theater where the curtain keeps rising.

from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? It’s lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, and astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry. It’s partly a memoir, partly an angry diversion down the avenues of race, sexuality, and addiction, and it’s partly an indescribable genre of its own, written in the form of a letter from Vuong to his illiterate mother. For once, this is a book that is as powerful as everyone says it is.

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