Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, lies dead.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBIby David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horsesby Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

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Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#4 Wolf Whistle

51bf+UoPhrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If I told you there was a laugh-out-loud book about the murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, you’d call such a thing, at the least, in poor taste. Yet the late Lewis Nordan, who lived through that episode as a teenager in his home town of Itta Bena, MS, wrote just such a book–fictionalizing the murder and running it through his wildly imaginative brain formed by heavy immersion into Southern Gothic literature and Southern vernacular. The result is Wolf Whistle–profane, horrific, and one of my top reads of 2017 (though the novel dates to 1993).

The book is worth the price of admission just for the courtroom scene which is what Harper Lee’s would have been like had it been stripped of every veneer of high-mindedness. Alice, the young 4th-grade school teacher with the lone sense of conscience, takes her wards on a field trip to the murder trial while an unruly parrot disrupts the proceedings enough for truth to be told and the evil of the crime to be exposed, even if the perpetrators, as in real life, get off scot free. Critics call some of this magical realism. I call it brilliant.

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Emmett Till

What Nordan does is to foreground the brutality and tragedy of lower-class white Southerners, particularly as they interact with the African-American community. The characters walk over from a Flannery O’Connor story and stay in your face, all the while silent sufferers like poor Glenn Greg, (who tried to set his abusive daddy on fire and instead burned himself to a slow, painful death), linger in the background. You feel it’s not right to laugh at the clowns who drive the narrative, but in this Delta nightmare-scape, you take comfort where you can find it.

The sad history of racial violence is still close to the surface and the past is never really past.  And this is vivid, scalding writing without much hint of redemption.  Except…images of the dead teenager keep surfacing in stories and even in a raindrop on Alice’s coat, and they won’t be extinguished. As long as people keep remembering Bobo, (the Emmett Till figure in the book), the story is not finished.

The book prompted me to spend a day in visiting Emmett Till-related sites in Mississippi last summer, something I wrote about here.

Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.”  That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir.  He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.

I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home.  What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom.  All with a strong sense of place.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer.  Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own.  It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle.  There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story.  The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”

Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it.  Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection.  Imagining a more magical world.

One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane.  Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along.  Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work.  And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.

My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.”  I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process.  It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self.  And it’s here he finds some healing.

“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)

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Lewis Nordan

Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality.  This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible.  Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love.  The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is.  Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded.  And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.

I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction.  Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.

Music of the Swamp

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1992

209 pages