The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The author of The Underground Railroad has done it again, this time with a story of a prison-like reform school in Florida. Worse-than-Dickensian abuse occurred throughout this narrative, based on the real-life revelation five years ago about the Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna. Archeologists examining human remains buried in a secret graveyard at the school determined that nearly 100 boys had been raped, tortured and killed. Whitehead reconstructs Dozier School as a fictional Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Florida. His protagonist, Elwood Curtis, comes from a family whose history recapitulates the wrongs and misfortunes inflicted on blacks in America. Elwood is an honest, hard-working boy, aiming to go to college and better himself, who is arrested when he hitches a ride in a car that turns out to be stolen. Sentenced to the prison of Nickel Academy, he tries to follow the rules so his sentence is not prolonged. When he comes to the defense of someone who is being bullied, he is put in solitary and tortured. The staffers were brutal and sadistic toward both black and white “students,” but, measure for measure, always worse for the blacks. The school/prison was not closed until 2011. The story twists at the end. The Nickel Boys is an outstanding read.
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a beautiful and complicated narrative, a Pulitzer Prize-winning paean to trees and the natural world and a call to awareness regarding what humankind is doing to destroy the environment. The underlying theme is that people commoditize trees, destroying them for products to be made, ignoring the nuances of trees as living things, recklessly trammeling their essential role in the environment as generator of oxygen and habitat for living things. Destruction of trees, especially by clear cutting, jeopardizes the well-being of humanity and brings the end of the planet perilously close. Powers’ imagery is riveting. The narrative can be difficult to follow if you let a few weeks lapse between chapters. The nine major characters emerge in what seems to be a series of short stories, unrelated – until they aren’t. If you just read the book intermittently, it can be daunting to reconnect with the multiple characters, driven by their passions to be radical environmentalists. The result is a magnum opus, deeply philosophical but grounded in the harshest realities of our environmental crisis, alluring but depressing, hard to shake off yet optimistic by its very popularity.
The Guest Book by Sarah Blake is a multi-generational family saga, starting with a young couple in Manhattan in the 1930’s. The family is WASPy, wealthy (old money), smug, uptight, and, constrained by all the ought to’s of a certain class, very much hobbled by things left unsaid. Initially one might see this book as a parody of people for whom one feels contempt but whose lifestyle we might envy. Yet disaster strikes, a child dies, and we’re hooked on a narrative of unhappiness and tragedies with each succeeding generation. Set on the family-owned island off the coast of Maine where they “summer,” the book explores sense of place as the defining element in the family’s history. Family lore turns out to be more mythology than fact, with secret truths quietly kept from children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren until the granddaughter, not insignificantly an historian, puts it all together. Anti-Semitism, racism and evolving societal issues test the articulated ethos of what it means to be good. It leaves us reflecting on the legacy messages we signal from one generation to another, including the values imparted in things we cherish (or at least can’t throw away) and the “ought to’s” we got from our mothers and fathers that we’ve passed on to our children. A really good yarn with lots to think about, including the security of continuity and the challenge of change.
Ulysses by James Joyce. No, I’m not kidding. Got through only part of it 30+ years ago. It’s a bear of a book, and it doesn’t get easier over the years. When we were planning a family trip to Ireland in June, we knew we would be in Dublin on June 16th, celebrated in that storied city as Bloomsday in honor of the book, which covers one day in 1904 in the life of Leopold Bloom, one of three protagonists of Ulysses. I got through about three chapters and decided that life is too short. But then came Bloomsday, when Dubliners dress in Edwardian costume, and people visit the sites of famous scenes in the book. Our guide was Dr Conor Linnie, Lecturer & Researcher, School of English at Trinity College. As we went from site to site, he’d read out loud from relevant portions of Joyce’s book, and he brought it to life. So, when I saw that Brandeis Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI) was teaching a course on Ulysses this fall, I declared it was “now or never.” I learned how to listen to a recording of the book while reading it and making notations in the margins. Every once in a while, I’d hit the pause button to look up the meaning of some obscure reference in The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. Finally, I got through Joyce’s Ulysses, with a real sense of accomplishment.
Here’s the deal. James Joyce, sometimes hailed as the greatest writer of the 20th century, certainly one of the leaders of the modernist movement, innovated in stream-of-consciousness writing. While covering the movements of Leopold Bloom, his wife, Molly, and poet Stephen Dedalus as well as many other Dublin characters, the more significant travels are their inner journeys, their secret thoughts, disappointments and aspirations, every fleeting notion that went through their minds. There are major themes of Ireland versus England, the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, and anti-Semitism. All of this is dropped into the framework of Homer’s Odyssey. The book was ruled obscene in the United States in 1921, and the ban was not lifted until 1934. The book is written in a variety of styles, and people have been trying to parse it for years. Author Virginia Woolf, master of clear writing, was said to have called it “diffuse” and “pretentious.” It’s all of that – and more. I’m glad I read it, and you might be too, if you make it your literary challenge for 2020. Kind of like going to the gym.
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