Sunday, March 26, 2017

Barbara Kingsolver, THE LACUNA

I think this might be my new favorite book of 2017. Beautifully written, epic, big-hearted, wide-ranging. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Forrest Gump, the story features an engaging, curious protagonist and spans years. It's told through journals, letters, scraps of paper, newspaper reviews, and official documents, and is assembled and framed by a woman who is nameless at the beginning ("VB") but later is revealed to be Violet Brown, who serves as the protagonist's stenographer (and friend). The protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is first shown as a young man, born in America but relocated as a teen to Mexico with his peripatetic and unstable mother; he takes a job as plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, and befriends Rivera's wife, Frieda Khalo, and their friend Lev Trotsky; he eventually becomes a successful novelist, writing about ancient Mexico. His voice is thoughtful and often very clever and wryly amusing. I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins.

The villain that evolves in this book is the irresponsible press, which possesses a rabid craving for gossip, sensationalism, and fear-mongering about communists in the late 1940s and '50s, and which invents outright lies about Shepherd to satisfy the public. The accusations mount against him; his trial devolves into farce. (The "noose around his neck" is some words spoken by one of the boy characters in his second book, which a book review presents as the views of Shepherd himself; this is reprinted in 61 magazines worldwide, becoming solid proof of his communist leanings.) But the furious energy for persecution of people perceived as Other made my heart ache.

Themes range widely: art, love, homosexuality, the power of the written word, war, politics, what it means to be seen and known by another person, what is missing from a story and why it's important, what it means to be betrayed, and then saved again. Kingsolver even manages a happy ending, like the ones Harrison's readers want from him. Gratitude to my friend Mame for giving me a signed copy a while back; and to my bookclub for picking it, which meant I pulled it off my "to read" shelf.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Part of a new series called "Hot Books," edited by former editor-in-chief of Salon David Talbot, this collection of essays was written by a young man, D. Watkins, who once dealt crack on the east side of Baltimore but eventually found his way to Johns Hopkins where he earned a master's in education. His essays outline the many reasons blacks in Baltimore, and other cities, are struggling to escape the cycles of drugs, poverty, poor education, and violence. The writing is raw and heartfelt; the statistics about literacy rates (e.g., only 7% of black 8th-grade boys in Baltimore read at grade level) and murders alarming; his observations shrewd; and his descriptions of his experience are variously poignant, heartrending, and infuriating. He describes people so poor they eat cereal with a fork to make sure there's enough milk for the last bite. The schools have metal bars on the windows, metal detectors, classes of up to 50 students, and subs that sit on their phone the whole time while chaos erupts around them; is it any wonder the schools are seen by some as feeders the private, for-profit prison systems? The drug-dealers work 80-90 hours a week, hustling; in fact, there's a lot of hustle going on, mostly illegal, but these people know how to work. Poverty is not the same as laziness, he insists. What's easy and hard are completely flipped around in this environment: "It's easier to get a gun than a job in east Baltimore. I went to Fat Hands's and Naked's crib with $300 and came out with a two-toned .45 ..." But he has antidotes, the first one being: "Simple communication, which I perfected at Hopkins, was the key Underneath it all,  found, the privileged whites and Asians at Hopkins were the same as the black dudes in my neighborhood. We all wanted love, success, purpose, and opportunity. ... Learning how to communicate with people so far removed from my reality made me smarter. ..."
This is a very quick but important read. I'd strongly recommend for anyone who is thinking about race, education, and public policy in America.

Monday, March 6, 2017


I enjoyed it, but it was an unusual book. There's very little by way of a plot arc; it represents a tangled web of four generations of a family; there are no main characters, really, and not much in the way of character change or development. To some extent, what develops is the sense (for the reader) that every character in this story has a different, competing, and at times contradictory story about the family and events. Sometimes the tales are wildly at odds: the grandmother Linnie Mae constructed a Romeo-and-Juliet narrative in which at age 13, she was kept from her (26-year-old) boyfriend for five years and then, when she was 18, followed him to Baltimore, having saved her money and believing that he has carried a torch for her all that time; but when she calls him from the bus station, he gropes for a memory of her, nearly refuses to pick her up, and doesn't want her to stay. So to some extent, this is a book about the narratives individuals construct in their heads about their web of family, in order to preserve their selves, to protect their personal Truths (or Lies). The one character who seems to change is Denny, but his change is not demonstrated throughout and the sign of it is tucked in on the fourth page from the end.  However, Tyler is a genius at representing the tiny interactions between characters and describing characters: "He was a brash and hasty man in all other areas of life, a man who coasted through stop signs without so much as a toe on the brake, a man who bolted his food and guzzled his drinks and ordered a stammering child to 'come on, spit it out,' but when it came to constructing a house he had all the patience in the world."