The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau

William Howland was one of many William Howlands, the name being passed down over generations of owners of his large plantation in his southern town. And knowing he had a family name to uphold, he navigated his position with care, guiding those in his life using his money and influence quietly and sparingly. But politics in the south were never easy, especially when they were mixed with racial tensions, and William Howland and his family were not immune to this conundrum, no matter what his influence might bear. Just one small slip, just one small move and your whole life can be blown up before you.

This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that blew me away – not in how amazing it was but in the fact that it won a Pulitzer. Yes, it ultimately was moving and yes, it ultimately was powerful. But my goodness it took getting through about 80% of the story to get to anything that was at all moving or powerful. One should not have to work that hard to get to the “good part!” I can understand that an author has to set the story up and build the foundation. But it should not take 80-85% of the story for anything of any significance to happen.

Moreover, the characters felt distant, not anyone we were able to get to know. William Howland seemed to float through life in a fog – so much so that we were kept from knowing him as well. As for his love and partner, Margaret, another main character, we know great detail about her origins but once she enters his life, she suddenly becomes a figure, a shadow – we lose her, sadly. She loses herself, her identity. This is a wasted opportunity, in my opinion, because she is probably the most interesting character in this story. On the other hand, the author opts rather to focus on William’s granddaughter, Abigail, who is shallow, dull and only seems to wake up at the very end of the story.

I will note that ultimately we do get there. It does build into a climax that is powerful and interesting. It just takes WAY too long to get there.

I apparently differ greatly from the Pulitzer judges of 1965. I’d be curious to hear what others think.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This epic tale begins with the birth of Effia, born during a fire that devastated her father’s crops, a harbinger of the impact that fire would have on generations to come. And as we learn about the generations that follow, we also learn about the history of the warring tribes that inhabit the Gold Coast of Africa as well as the movement of enslaved Black men and women to America and their experience through generations there.

This is another work of genius by Gyasi. Through many endearing characters and colorful and impassioned scenes, we learn about the history of the peoples of current day Ghana as well as how so many came to be enslaved in America. We learn, too, about their experience of continued oppression beyond the years of slavery in the US as well. The stories are so tactile and sharply painted, the reader cannot help but feel a connection to the many characters, as if we are traveling along the family’s lineage ourselves, through each generation.

And Gyasi omits nothing. She includes the dark reality for those who migrated north seeking relief from enslavement only to find continued prejudice and rejection in different forms. She includes the ugly truth about our history of replacing slavery with mass incarceration. She writes about our American reality now and how, in spite of some change and advancement, divides persist.

It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of the not-so-beautiful history of Ghana and the history of our country. Yes, another MUST-READ.

 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

 

Lila (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Kindle edition by Robinson, Marilynne.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Lila is still trying to reconcile that she is here, now, in Gilead, married to the “old man,” John Ames, the respected preacher of this tiny village, especially given her meandering, even sordid past. If he knew the details, would he have so quickly and without judgement have been willing to baptize her? Would he still love her?  Is she willing to risk telling him her secrets? Lila continues to hold herself close, even as she gradually learns about love and trust from the very gentle and kind John Ames.

This is a beautiful prequel to Gilead, very gently revealing the traumatic story of Lila’s youth. We gain insight into her quiet and independent nature, reading about the tender but precarious relationship she had with her beloved Doll, the woman who snatched her away from her house of origin and who raised her and protected her as a mother lioness would protect her young.  We also are with Lila as she struggles to reconcile the ironies of organized religious precepts with the practical realities of the everyman’s day-to-day life.

Once again, Robinson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to quietly release the painful details of Lila’s life just as one might accidentally drop a pearl every now and then from a fine string. She creates images and characters that are imprinted in Lila’s mind, and so too, are imprinted in ours. We feel her loneliness and we are empathetic when Lila can only feel mean, because we are entirely with her in her lived experience. And the intermixing of philosophy and theology and storytelling is so subtle that we are contemplating it without even being aware.

If you’ve read Gilead, you must read Lila – it will only enhance your understanding of the story and of yourself. 

 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway: A Novel: Towles, Amor: 9780735222359: Amazon.com: Books

After being escorted home by the warden of Salina, the juvenile detention center where he has just served, Emmett arrived with a fairly clear plan for starting anew, for himself and his younger brother, Billy,  Since the premature death of their father, the only parent who’d been around for the past number of years, it was now up to Emmett to see to Billy’s care and he planned to take that responsibility very seriously.  He did not, however, anticipate that 9-year-old Billy would have an equally precise idea about what their future plan should entail.  Nor did he anticipate the complicated route on which they would find themselves traveling.  

There are many reasons that I am not an author, but Amor Towles is one of them.  Many authors intimidate me, with their uncanny ability to weave together intricate plot lines, such that they push the borders of one’s imagination.  Others are able to conjure sentences that are like pearls on a string, poetry within prose, at which I can only marvel. Towles is able to accomplish both, which is the gift he shared with us in A Gentleman in Moscow, and again shares with us here. 

And the characters are as multi-dimensional as the people we know in our lives.  Duchess, one of Emmett’s associates from Salina, is a profound and complex character, and this novel is every bit about his journey as it is Emmett’s. Duchess who is the consummate showman, is always polite and upbeat and outwardly generous, is inwardly broken.  We know not to trust him but we like him in spite of ourselves; we know he has a heart, but that heart has been fractured over and over and over.  He too is on a mission, and his is understandable but misguided.

I love that Billy —  the youngest, most idealistic, and the one guided by a book of heroes — is also the character in the story with the most common sense.  Billy is the one who sees through all the nonsense that the others struggle with.  While everyone else sees themselves as his protectors, Billy is actually the one who remains calm, keeps the most level head, and pays attention to the details that matter most.  We can all learn from Billy.

The writing, the characters, the journey – give this gift to yourself.  And be glad that Amor Towles is the author, and not me! 

A definite MUST-READ!  

 

 

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved: Toni Morrison: 9781400033416: Amazon.com: Books

Denver and Sethe have found a rhythm in their isolated existence..  Even while they are haunted by an occasional eerie noise or movement from the unexpected, and even as they mourn the loss of Baby Suggs, their mother/grandmother, they have figured out a way to work and live and get through the days.   It is only the arrival of Paul D who stirs up old trauma for Sethe, throwing her back into her past, forcing her to relive old horrors.  And it is very unclear if their unusual little family will be able to leave the past behind and move forward.  

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved, is beautiful, poetic, lofty, erratic, layered, and extremely hard to understand without guidance.   It is likely that repeated readings are necessary to glean the most meaning from the text  Because it was not set up as a traditional story might be, it was hard to get oriented to the characters, — who they were, where they were,  and how they were related to each other.  Once I did muddle through the first, maybe 10%,  of the book, however, I was then able to appreciate the book for all its magnificent power.  

There is a story here, but a non-linear one and one that mixes in much superstition, supernatural, and memory.  In truth, it is a lyrical platform in which to lament the horrors of enslavement, the way in which enslavement robs us of our humanity.  It is loosely based on a true story of a woman who, rather than allow her daughter to be captured and be enslaved, murdered her instead.   This  unthinkable act forces us to examine just how desperate a mother could be to choose death over a life of ownership by another individual.  To choose death rather than not having freedom to choose whom one may love and form attachment to.  To choose death over a life of being chained, both figuratively and literally.  

Most powerful for me were the sparks of memories of Paul D and of Sethe as they went about their day to day on “Sweet Home,” the plantation where they’d originally met.  Paul D harks back to a memory of overhearing an assessment of his monetary worth, as if one could place such a figure on a life.  At another moment, Sethe remembers overhearing Schoolteacher showing his pupils how to list Sethe’s human qualities on one side of a page and her animal qualities on the other, reducing her to only partly human.  There is physical brutality described as well, but I believe these more insidious crimes reveal more about how these individuals were perceived and how these perceptions seeped into their souls– even more so than the physical harm that befell them. 

I feel that I’ve gotten so much from having read this book.  If reading can impart some degree of empathy,  Sethe’s story is an important place to start.