Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Reading in July...

I just finished Michael Thomas' debut novel, Man Gone Down, which has been likened by the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, to Ellison's Invisible Man. An understandable comparison as so much of the novel is comprised of the unnamed protagonist's philosophical ruminations on racial interactions, class, social status and contracts, love, family, and black ("Black Irish Indian") manhood, during four days of his life in Brooklyn when he's attempting to raise a large sum of cash in order to get a new apartment for his family, pay his two sons' private school tuition, allowing him to reunite with them, his toddler daughter, and his Brahmin-bred white wife.

What I suppose was most engrossing to me about this work, was its protagonist's recollections of Boston, and the way in which his current ruminations were so particularly marked by that experience of African American Boston identity, an edifice which is so run through with uncertain dowels of class, color, race, in the house that W.E.B. DuBois and T.S. Eliot and a number of anglophone canonical writers built. The man's incisive self-consciousness is merciless both for himself and for the reader. There are few moments of peace for him. The emotional and psychic space rendered reminds me of Greg Tate's description of the Boston leg of King Sunny Ade's tour from Fly Boy in Buttermilk (out-of-print): while all the white audience members danced, the black people stand, contained, aware of being on display; and aware that dancing instead of offering Ade a sign of appreciation would collude with and affirm the superficial appropriative rhythmic engagement of the whites who would be terrified and/or disrespectful of Ade in another context. That last wasn't something that Tate, Washington, D.C. born and bred, included in his assessment. It's the sort of observation available, albeit in a more eloquent form, in Thomas' novel. His nameless protagonist had been a child, and then a young man, of uncommon intelligence and promise. But his narrative doesn't over- or underplay the intelligence and promise among a group of socially, economically, and ethnically marginalized friends that surround the protagonist in his youth. What it does elucidate is how much more common it is that poor black (and white as well)* children growing up in centers of entrenched stratifications of social status, and the perhaps equally promising parents who conceived them, will find themselves inordinately oppressed by the negotiations required to fulfill that promise. (*yes, certainly applicable to other folks of color as well, but the protagonist is 35 years old, and this narrative references a certain racial myopia deeply present in New England at the time of his childhood.)

You can see and hear Thomas read from Man Gone Down and talk about absentee fathers, the Boston Red Sox (he's a fan), running, his non-fiction and fiction books-in-progress, and teaching writing, at the Georgia Center for the Book from WGBH/Boston. Discussing the novel's themes in depth on WABE/Atlanta's "Between the Lines with Valerie Jackson" and WBUR/Boston's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook." Finally, here's an interview with Dana Roc.

Of course, I have read the latest and final Harry Potter installment. Much too soon to write anything about it here. You practically have to find a panic room somewhere to make sure you're not spilling the beans for some poor unsuspecting passerby who still hasn't finished the 700+ page tome. But I would agree with the people who feel it is the best of all the books.

Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare (Book 1), by Darren Shan. Don't ask me how I got into reading this, someone somewhere mentioned them as the next big addiction for those of adults who like reading fantastical kids lit, but have already read C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien (I like Tolkien's non-Hobbit fare), Lemony Snickett (really could not get into Snickett's tales) and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. As every fifth sentence ended in an exclamation point, I soon found myself weary of the protagonist, also named Darren, in whose voice the story is told. But the descriptions of the Cirque du Freak, and the dynamic between Darren and his best friend Steve each promised something perhaps of greater depth than the early incarnation of Darren's voice belied. As the stakes become higher regarding issues of good and evil, friendship, loyalty and love, forcing a young boy to make a decision that alters the rest of his life and that of his loved ones, this shift is reflected in the protagonist's voice. I found I was slowly drawn into the story and by the time I had turned the last page had developed some sort of investment in the characters. I wanted to know what happened next.

What else was I reading this month?
The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Heinrich Heine, and more Heinrich Heine (thanks again J.K.), and too much more to list...


At 5:23 PM, Blogger ReggieH said...

Will have to take a look at _Man Gone Gone Down_. Your comment about the Ade concert reminds me of when I was in college in Virginia, and I refused to eat watermelon in public, out of fear of conforming to the worst of black stereotypes. And had a hard time eating fried chicken too (you wouldn't believe the condescension of the white students toward the black, mainly female, commissary staff...well, maybe you would...)

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