During the first twenty or so pages of Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings I knew that I was reading an extraordinary novel, the kind that makes me page back and forth, set the book down, think about the language, then start again. I had to start the book over because I'd read quickly. The book flows because language is both brutally visceral and mesmerizing. There are offhand killings, botched killings, killings cunningly plotted and awkwardly executed. Although this book is centered on the miraculously failed attempt on Bob Marley's life and the swirl of murderous gang rivalry, cold war paranoia, and the infamous suffering of ghetto drug user/dealers, it is not a history book. It is what history feels like. I couldn't get out of this book. Sometimes I couldn't find my way inside of it, but I couldn't stop reading it either. Marlon James writes great characters, from the hit man desperate to please a scornful boyfriend, to a woman on the lam whose survival story is raucous, suspenseful, and absurd. This intelligent, intense, profane, and beautifully fluent novel is shortlisted for and richly deserves the National Book Critic's Circle Award for fiction this year -- best of luck, Marlon James.
Last August we were sorting through the advanced readers copies that had collected on the bookstore shelves. My daughter Pallas picked up The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. I thought I'd seen the last of that book, but Pallas came back for Christmas and put that reading copy in my hands. She told me to read it, I did, and now I have to say to you. READ THIS. The Underground Girls of Kabul is subtitled: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. This book. If you read it, you will never forget Azita, Mehran, Zahra, Shukria, or Shahed -- all women who have been raised as boys in Afghanistan -- and then forced to return to being women. Nordberg explores a cultural practice that astonished me. It makes sense -- to "make" a girl at birth into a boy, for at least part of her life, is to give her a taste of what it is to be human. To have a will. Often, it is a magical practice that will supposedly prompt a woman's body to produce a male. Most hauntingly, one of these women became a "brother" to a real brother in order to protect him from possible poisoning by a previous wife in a polygamous marriage. She ate everything and drank everything before her brother. You will not stop reading this book until you find out what happens to these women -- what is happening to them now.
Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at UC-Davis, grew up in Algeria. Her impassioned and superbly intelligent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, begins with this sentence: "Could I defend my father from the Armed Islamic Group with a paring knife?" Bennoune's father, Mahfoud Bennoune, taught Darwinism and was a fearless critic of armed fundamentalists like the Islamic Salvation Front, who sponsored assassinations of of Bennoune's fellow professors. Her experience impelled Karima Bennoune to travel the world, at great personal risk, in order to interview moderate Muslim people, often women, who cogently and steadfastly insist on human rights in violently fundamentalist settings. She has described herself (I was lucky enough to meet her) as "the woman who makes people cry" because these stories about people who strive to maintain humanity, who die for the right to dissent, to speak freely, become educated, dance, write, paint, sing, bare their faces to the wind, their hair to the sky, and who insist that the memory of those killed in this struggle not be erased, these stories include unbearable loss. Yet the stubborn will to resist is mesmerizing -- I could not stop reading this book until page 195 (the hardcover). In the middle of this page, I had to set the book down in order to cry, too, along with the people whose existence gave me a sense of human grandeur.
Every time I finish a book I want to include here I put it into a pile. Now the pile has toppled. I hardly know where to start except with the first that comes to mind. The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker, subtitled and subdescribed, as every nonfiction book is these days: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. I cannot get this disturbing bit of information out of my head: The Pentagon has been researching a hummingbird-like Nano Drone. This remotely controlled fake hummingbird spyware would be painted like a real one and mimic darting movements. Fortunately, there is a difficult issue to surmount -- the drone's battery life is eight minutes. Basically, Strycker says, hummingbirds burn fuel like fighter jets. We would have to eat two hundred pounds of hamburger between breakfast and dinner to match a hummer's intake. "In terms of energy, hummingbirds live at the edge of physical possibility." This book is packed with marvelous bits of information and I'm going to give it to my father.
Per Petterson's new novel, I Refuse, is unnervingly terse and starkly beautiful. It is a small porthole window that provides glimpses of damaged unassailable love. I don't think Petterson uses a single adverb -- stunningly stunning. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, uses quite a few. They are in keeping with the Victorianesque text. This novel was perfectly deserving of the Man Booker Prize. Wendell Berry's novel, Hannah Coulter, seems a quiet novel. For many of its pages it is the story of a woman's not unusual life, if you remember that many people made their lives on farms. It is at the end in the description of the Okinawan people and the battlefield their land became, that this novels delivers its power whole into the reader's hands. I am still reading Elena Ferrante's addictive trilogy which begins with My Brilliant Friend.
When there isn't a book I can get involved with close to hand, I pick up old favorites. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, always moves me with its simplicity. The ruin of a decent but oblivious man by careless distant relatives gives each page an implacable weight. Yet the novel itself so light on the surface, so precise in every spare scene and nimble word. I read The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. Also an implacable story, told with keen relish for conversation and description of life during the brazen boom years of the mid-1980's in the UK, when AIDS was a set of wild rumors which became devastating truth.
In the end, the only book that matters in light of today's announcement by the U.N. that we are at the cliff's edge, maybe plunging over, into a broken climate that could knock out our species, is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. Please read this book.