Book Review: WHAT WE LOSE, a meditation on grief

clemmons, zinzi - what we loseWhat We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons

Growing up, Thandi fell into an in-between space as the child of a South African and African-American. The blacks of her hometown, Philadelphia, didn’t consider her one of them, nor did the white kids. Yet, her mother anchored her. When her mother passed away from breast cancer during her freshman year in college, Thandi became unmoored. As she grew into adulthood and became a mother, Thandi danced with the grief of her mother’s death, the pain of her mother’s past under apartheid, and her own sense of being always out of place.

An eclectic novel, What We Lose includes excerpts from blogs and memoirs, photographs, figures, and charts. (In some cases, I wasn’t sure if these were made up by the author for the story or actual source material until I looked at the credits page, something not usually found in a novel!) Chapters range from a sentence long to a few pages.

Clemmons deftly sketches the impact of a long illness, the shape of absence taken by grief, and the desperate ways people behave to escape it. At the same time, I felt removed from the emotion of the characters, perhaps because of the structure or tone of the writing, though a quote from the book also seems appropriate:

If you have never eaten a tangerine, however much the other person loves you and wants to help you understand what a tangerine tastes like, they will never succeed by describing it. The reality of the tangerine goes beyond ideas.

Maybe for grief, each person’s experience is so unique, they can never adequately describe it. I think this novel will probably be most interesting to those who have suffered a similar loss or to those who are interested in novels that play with form, structure, and narrative.


Book Review: NOVEMBER ROAD, a satisfying cat-and-mouse chase between mafiosos in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination

berney, lou - november roadNovember Road
Lou Berney

Working for New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, Frank Guidry, always looking out for himself, luxuriated in his beautiful apartment, trendy wardrobe, and revolving door of attractive women. But when President Kennedy was shot, Guidry realized he’d been near the Texas Book Depository only a week earlier to drop off a getaway car. Then, Carlos’s number two, Seraphine, instructed him to go to Houston to dump the car underwater. Guidry feared that he knew too much and was a loose end about to be cut.

On his way west, Guidry encountered Charlotte Roy and her two daughters, on the run themselves from a stifling future in Woodrow, Oklahoma. Guidry decided traveling with them was the perfect cover, and ingratiated himself with Charlotte. Associating with them, though, made them vulnerable. Normally, Guidry wouldn’t care about collateral damage, but for the first time in decades, he was feeling something he thought might be love.

As Guidry tries to keep himself, Charlotte, and the girls safe, Charlotte begins to find her voice, questioning Guidry and advocating for herself and her daughters. Meanwhile, the skilled hitman sent by Carlos is just a step behind them and getting closer.

The beginning was a little slow, and I got tired of Guidry saying “ye Gods,” but November Road was overall an engrossing and fun read–a cat and mouse road trip with a strange diversion in Las Vegas and, to me, an unexpected, though satisfying ending.

Book Review: VIETNAM – AN EPIC TRAGEDY, 1945-1975 a comprehensive history that contributes new details

hastings, max - vietnam (2).jpgVietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975
Max Hastings

In Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975, Max Hastings chronicles conflict in the country from the end of World War II until South Vietnam fell to the communists. He lays out how America viewed Vietnam as a military problem to be solved, when the concerns were primarily political and social, and that the United States acted with hubris by not involving the Vietnamese in decisions that affected their own country. Additionally, he believes that the communists have been unfairly seen as being in the right in the conflict. Because the Northern Vietnamese so tightly controlled the media and public opinion, though, the world was not privy to the atrocities they committed which were similar to those committed on the other side, and he doesn’t let either side off easily.

The book is primarily structured chronologically, though some chapters are thematic. It is full of anecdotes from soldiers, often grunts, NCOs, or low ranking officers, providing a very intimate account of the war. At times, it reminded me a bit of Mark Bowden’s Hué 1968 writ large. Hastings draws from interviews as well as primary and secondary source material, and it seems the research is comprehensive.

In all the other Vietnam War books I’ve read, I’ve not seen any discussion of the Russian or Chinese advisers to the NVA. Hastings includes accounts from Russians who were assigned to assist surface-to-air missile teams and Chinese engineers sent to help repair bridges destroyed in bombings. Truly, just for those sections, I was glad to have read the book because it was a perspective I’ve seen nowhere else.

True to his mission of including both sides, Hastings also offers insight from Vietcong and NVA soldiers. One female doctor was killed while carrying a journal, and he quotes frequently from it. He also includes poetry and songs.

Additionally, Hastings includes a chapter on the M-16 versus the AK-47 and offers insight into why an inferior gun was rushed to the field without proper testing. He also devotes attention to Australian and New Zealand troops as well as the domestic opposition to their deployment.

Because the book is focused on what happened in country, less details are included about the political wrangling in Washington DC, although the basic outline of Presidential commitment, from Truman to Nixon, is delineated. On the Northern Vietnamese side, he reveals how Le Duan eclipsed Ho Chi Min as a power broker in the politburo and recounts personal details about Le Duan I’d not read about before.

Given the nature of the subject matter, I understand why the book is so lengthy, but I do still wonder if it could have been cut a bit since there was some repetition. Additionally, at times, the organization was a bit chaotic, with Hastings moving from topic-to-topic within a section or even a single paragraph. I also thought at times, his language was a little flippant or silly, for example when he wrote, “streetwise—or rather, paddywise.” I did like the maps, which were crisp, clear, and easy to understand. The included photos were useful, though in this case, I’d like to have more rather than less.

Overall, this was a very interesting book and offered new material in a very crowded genre. I wouldn’t recommend it as the first or only book to read on the Vietnam War, but maybe the second or third!

Book Review: MILKMAN, an unusually but thoroughly rewarding novel

burns, anna - milkman (2)Milkman
Anna Burns

In Milkman, Middle Sister, a Northern Irish teenager during the Troubles, has a maybe-boyfriend she has hidden from her widowed mother to protect him (and her) from her mother’s haranguing about marriage and children. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of Milkman, a married, high-ranking paramilitary. Rumors of their (non-existent) affair, started by her vindictive First Brother-in-Law, become fact after they are repeated enough within the community. Milkman subtly suggests that Maybe-Boyfriend’s life might be in danger. Meanwhile, Maybe-Boyfriend is the subject of rumors in his own neighborhood. He is a mechanic and car lover, and his shop received a non-working Bently. The guys dismantled it and drew for parts. One of his neighbors suggested he might be disloyal for having part of a car from “over the water.”

As Milkman steps up his pursuit of Middle Sister, her sense of helplessness is palpable, especially given his power in the community. Because his machinations are subtle, she doesn’t even always trust herself that he is doing something wrong. Later, another stalker puts a gun to her chest. That’s a clear violation and her Third Brother-in-Law promises to beat him up, but the damage is the same in both cases, perhaps even worse in the former.

The book vividly depicts, though doesn’t belabor, living in a community under siege and being caught between the rules of the state and the paramilitaries that controlled the community. I recently read Say Nothing, and I was glad to have a little context for the conflict and the vocabulary of the Troubles.

Middle Sister is also caught in the expectations of her family and her religion with strict gender roles. Even though Middle Sister is slightly more analytical than others, she still is horrified that her maybe-boyfriend enjoys cooking and looking at sunsets.

I must have picked up the book at exactly the right time for me because I adored reading it. I thought it was very funny at times–Middle Sister hates the Twentieth Century so only reads things written before 1899 and is distrusted because she reads while walking. Mostly, though, it was very sad to see Middle Sister caught up in forces entirely outside her control for reasons entirely out of her own making, which is probably how many in Northern Ireland felt during the Troubles.

Book Review: THESE BONES ARE NOT MY CHILD, a story set during the Atlanta Child Murders

bambara, toni cade - these bones are not my child (1)These Bones Are Not My Child
Toni Cade Bambara

Toni Cade Bambara sets These Bones are Not My Child against the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1980 during which an unknown number of mostly black children but some adults went missing or were murdered. Bambara spent over a decade researching the topic while writing the book which was edited by Toni Morrison and published posthumously.

The book begins with Zala Spencer anxiously and angrily awaiting her child, twelve-year-old Sonny, to arrive home. She calls 911–who says the situation isn’t an emergency–but finally gets two officers to come to the house, though they are sure Sonny is off voluntarily. Zala visits the Missing Persons Youth Division but is similarly dismissed, with their questions suggesting that her status as a single mother with three jobs might be to blame and finally convincing her that Sonny is with his father, though she is having a difficult time tracking Spence, his father, a limo driver, down. When she finally hears that he will be at the Perimeter Mall JCPenney, she rushes to meet him, expecting to see Sonny with him. Only traveling with his paid customers, Zala breaks down.

Zala falls apart, unable to care for her younger children, Kofi and Kenti, and neglects basic chores, failing to buy light bulbs for example, so shifts her one remaining bulb from room to room. Kofi and Kenti try to adjust to their brother’s absence and their mother’s distance. Over the course of the book, Zala develops into an activist, developing the voice she didn’t have to advocate for Sonny when he first went missing.

Although there are beautiful passages, the book as a whole, as might be expected from the subject, is bleak, though I knew little about the Atlanta Child Murders and thought learning about them was valuable. The parents (mostly mothers) of the missing and murdered created a group to advocate for their children which forced the city to create a task force which was often blundering and ineffective. Because of long-standing inequalities in the city, though they were in the majority, black families had difficulty accessing the halls of power. And with Maynard Jackson as the first black mayor, many did not want the families to be vocal about their dissatisfaction since it might embarass or discredit his administration.

If the book had retained a narrow focus on Sonny’s disappearance and the investigation, it would have been an excellent novel. Unfortunately, it drifts and meanders addressing the plight of Vietnam veterans for example, a topic which is very worthy of discussion but dilutes the focus of this particular book. Additionally, the book devotes pages to minute details of a less important scene but passes over major incidents such as how two characters who were so estranged one was suing the other reconciled.

Such, I suppose, is the challenge of publishing a book posthumously. It’s impossible to know how the author would have edited or changed the book before publication.