Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Monday, April 13, 2015

State Untamed

If you haven't read An Untamed State already, I suggest you run and not walk to the bookstore, library, or your favorite online book purveyor. Roxane Gay's account of one Haitian woman's kidnapping and subsequent release is a powerful, raw reflection on faith, mental strength, and the power of love. It's a book about Haiti, about Miami, about a new baby and a couple madly in love. It's about a father's betrayal, a wife's bitter silence, a gang of angry men with violent pasts and sad, violent futures. It's about money, poverty, beauty, and death. It's about revenge, and it's about healing. An Untamed State has earned rave reviews all over the net and beyond, but I wouldn't feel right about reading the book and not promoting it myself, from my own humble corner of the world.

Readers be warned: An Untamed State is not for the faint of heart. The book is rough and emotional right from the start, jarring the protagonist, the spirited Mireille, off a sunlit Haitian street and into a  cell. From there, we are thrown into Mireille's experience of profound violence, fear, and survival. I read the book with tears and chills; some parts I could hardly get through at all. And that, I'd say, is what good writing is: an exposure of primal truths that are so many other people's stories, too. Gay's writing took me straight into Mireille; the strongest writing comes when the narrator describes, at the mercy of her captors, the different ways she dies - first her body, then her faith, then her identify. In these places, the prose is exquisite.

Gay doesn't sugar-coat things. I was surprised in the first few chapters to find that her prose is spare, unadorned, lacking in fancy sentence structures but littered with fragments and the occasional comma splice. Gay doesn't hold back in the violence she describes, nor does she beautify the painful years that follow Mireille's capture. There is no happy ending to this book; the narrator's fairy-tale memories contrast, over and over again, with her unbelievable, near-death reality.

An Untamed State is sobering, vivid, and unforgettable. I look forward to reading much more by Roxane Gay.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Night at the Fiestas

It feels only natural to post a follow-up to last week's post on Kirstin Valdez Quade's new collection of short stories, Night at the Fiestas. She read from it at Collected Works Bookstore, where, long ago, she was employed. Now, she's a graceful, beautiful, well-respected artist whose dreams, as she told her audience, came true the night she read from her book in Santa Fe.

Her newfound fame is well-deserved. Night at the Fiestas reads like you'd expect a first book to - there are a few frayed edges, a couple sharp, abrupt endings, several strange and jaunty shifts in time and space. The stories linger and endure nevertheless. Each one captures a distinctive, realistic portrait of a wild place. The writing feels truer than fiction, vivid and swiftly-paced and stylish. The collection focuses mainly on Northern New Mexico, and showcases Quade's brilliance - namely, at creating realistic interactions between people. Where her descriptions of landscape fall short, her dialogue takes over - as acute as if she transcribed actual conversations, word for word. (For example, I've never, ever read the word 'Doy' - as in 'Duh' - in anything, ever, and yet sixth-graders use it all the time. Masterful.)

Overall, my favorite stories weren't the ones the New Yorker celebrates - "The Five Wounds" and "Ordinary Sins" felt too carefully-sculpted to read naturally. Too overworked, perhaps. What I loved was the closing story, which Narrative Magazine has snapped up: "The Manzanos" is a testament to the power of subtle, quiet prose. This was the story my body responded to - shivers, hairs on end, tears at the corners of my eyes.

I look forward to seeing what's next - a novel, the author claims, but superstition keeps her from saying more.

In the meantime: Brava, Ms. Quade, brava. You've done Santa Fe proud.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Family Life

Family Life, the latest by Indian-American writer Akhil Sharma, chronicles one boy’s youth, from bright and vivid days in Delhi to rough, confusing years in the American school system. Perhaps the book’s strongest moments are those when Ajay, eight years old when he moves from Delhi to Queens, discovers for the first time grocery stores, elevators, post offices, highways, American-style. Sharma captures well the movie-star glamour of America through the eyes of young Delhi boys, and the reader shares Ajay’s heartbreak at discovering the cruelty of American schools and the silent sterility of even Queens’ streets.

The book took just a few days to read, but the story lingers. Sharma’s images – gritty, graphic, honest – stick in the reader’s mind long after the book’s close. Don’t be misled – though Sharma writes from the perspective of an Indian American, this is no work of Jhumpa Lahiri, with her winding stories, thick with detail and conversation, of the lives of Indian nationals. Sharma’s style is more spare, and more real.

The book struck a chord; I’ve been to India, and upon return I noticed what Ajay noticed: our country’s empty streets, the orderly lines of cars on the highway, the endless boxes of cereal and soap in the grocery store. I know how it feels to marvel at our country’s wealth, but what I admire most about Sharma’s prose is the way it captures the life of India, the vigor and color and joy that infuses each day. In comparison, Family Life makes clear, the United States seems almost inert – hyper-clean, devoid somehow of the pumping energy that saturates India.
Through Ajay’s eyes, we witness a tragedy; the rest of the book chronicles the years to follow. The descriptions of nursing homes, hospital beds, and helpless patients made me weep, for these sections are told with brutal humanity. No detail is spared, least of all details concerning bodily functions.
Perhaps the weakest sections of the book come at the end; I read the last line, then looked for more. There is no clean ending, no bow tie to wrap things up, no moral lesson imposed. The narrator achieves monetary success, but there is no ultimate triumph. I left the book feeling empty, wanting more…but perhaps that was Sharma’s intention: to bring us from India to the United States, and then leave us to our devices, material or otherwise.