Caucasia, by Danzy Senna

I had an odd experience with this book. For some reason, I had it in my head that this was a memoir, perhaps because before I started it, some people in my book club compared it to The Glass Castle, an excellent memoir by Jeannette Walls that we read a few years ago. I ordered Caucasia through the library, so I didn't see which section it came from. I didn't look at the back cover or flaps; just started reading. Yes, I noticed the author's name on the cover didn’t match the main character’s, but she says right away that she has changed her name.

So, thinking that it was a true story, I thought it brilliant. Really captured the time period—Boston during the Civil Rights era (which, yes, I remember well)—and laid out some very interesting issues re race. The narrator, Birdie, and her sister are daughters of a bi-racial family: their mother is Caucasian and their father is African-American. By the luck of the gene pool, Birdie can pass for white while the sister has obviously African-American features and coloring.

The father is a scholar, who disapproves of the mother’s activitism and the rather dangerous people she begins to hang around with as she becomes involved with a wing of the Civil Rights movement who believe violence is the answer. The parents separate, the sister going with their father and his new (African-American) girlfriend, Carmen, to Brazil while Birdie goes with their mother and begins a new life as a white girl, moving around to avoid the consequences of the mother’s activism, but eventually settling in New Hampshire.

I did think the bond between the sisters almost too good to be true, but maybe not everyone fought with her sister the way I did, and I was willing to cut the author some slack since truth is often odder than fiction. I read about a quarter of the book before I actually looked at the flaps and realized it was a novel. I can't tell you how disappointed I was! I think that original misunderstanding was why I began to feel that the story—though very well-written—was too far-fetched.

For one thing, certain things were just paired too neatly. One white-looking daughter, one black. A fat, sloppy mother and a hip, gorgeous aunt. One sister overtly favored by their mother’s mother (a wealthy suburbanite), one by Carmen (In fact, I found Carmen's favoritism hard to understand; there seemed no basis for it). Polar opposites always make me suspicious; the world seems more complex than that.

Secondly, parts of the story, starting with the part set in New Hampshire, seemed unrealistic to me. I don’t want to give anything away, but things fall into place for them very easily and the last scraps of their former life seem to float away. To me, the first part of the story was character-driven and the second part more plot-driven, where the exigencies of the plot overrode the nuances of the characters and the complexity of their relationships.

The book raised interesting questions about race, which I thought could have been explored more fully. The weirdness/madness of the father's situation at the end—like a male cat lady—kept me from considering his theories about race. The whole did-she-or-didn't-she of the mother's situation kept me from considering how Birdie felt about being secretly black in white world.

These minor quibbles aside, I think the book is very well-written. The voice was wonderful; Senza really captured the child's and then the teenager's language and world view perfectly. And the period details were added in just the right amount. I loved the way the relationship between Birdie and her mother was developed, the clear-eyed love Birdie had for this flawed woman.

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett

A few weeks ago, in blogging about the Donna Leon book, I mentioned that in the mysteries I like, the detective has a moral code. This code may be openly expressed, as in Robert B. Parker’s books, or it may be shown through the detective’s actions, as in Reginald Hill’s books. Red Harvest takes this concept a step further. Hammett’s first novel was the April selection for one of my book clubs. I hadn’t read it before, though I’d heard it was the basis for Akiro Kurasawa’s Yojimbo and therefore all its descendants. Hammett’s detective is unnamed, but commonly referred to as the Continental Op because he is an employee of the Continental Detective Agency. He is also the narrator of Hammett’s second book, The Dain Curse and several short stories.

The Continental Op is sent to the mining town of Personville, Montana, hired by the newspaper editor to help smoke out corruption, but before they can meet, the editor is murdered. The man’s father, Elihu Willsson, runs the town: he owns the mines, the bank, the two newspapers, the sheriff, etc. He is also the man who brought in the gangsters that his son was trying to nail, brought them in as strike-breakers, but was now powerless to rein them in. Willsson couldn’t openly break with his thugs, the leaders being Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Max “Whisper” Thaler, because they had too much on him. Elihu Willsson sees his chance to take back his town and hires the Op to clear out the gangsters. The story thus marries two genres, detective fiction and westerns, the first to do so.

Personville—known to its residents as Poisonville—is loosely based on Butte, Montana, where Hammett was sent as a union-buster by Pinkerton. While there, Hammett was traumatized by the lynching of an IWW leader, Frank Little. Hammett suspected other Pinkerton agents may have been involved, but the murder was never solved. The horror stayed with him—Lillian Hellman later wrote that the lynching was “a kind of key to his life”—and it may have been what prompted him later to join the Communist Party. Certainly one of the main characters here is Bill Quint, a labor organizer from Chicago sent out to help the local IWW regain its footing.

Published in 1929, the book was first serialised in Black Mask and is dedicated to its editor, Joseph Thompson Shaw. Shaw demanded tight writing, lots of action, and no dilly-dallying with literary techniques. Within those parameters, Hammett does an amazing job of conveying characters through dialogue and compressed description, such as depicting the Op as “a blond Satan”. The dialogue is full of period slang, portraying these tough guys in their element. Despite the limitations of the first person narration, Hammett enables us to make our own assessment of the Op; his short bursts of dialogue convey when he’s being sarcastic or outright lying, a marvel of compression.

Surprisingly, the murder is solved early in the book, but there are many murders to come, hence the title. This unusual structure keeps the action moving at a clip almost too fast to follow. The most interesting character (for me, anyway) is Dinah Brand, a prostitute, but not the stereotype with a heart of gold; rather, a hand held out for gold. She paints herself as a woman who will do anything for money, but at the same time gives houseroom to a man afflicted with tuberculosis, a disease from which Hammett himself suffered. She is Whisper Thaler’s girlfriend, but manages to thread her way through the town’s corruption and bloodshed, following her personal code.

The Op’s own moral code evolves as the story progresses. His plan for cleaning up the town is to turn the various factions against each other, but as the murder count rises, he finds himself becoming callous and indifferent to the wholesale slaughter around him. He says, “‘Poisonville was beginning to boil out under the lid, and I felt so much like a native that even the memory of my very un-nice part in the boiling didn't keep me from getting twelve solid end-to-end hours of sleep.'” Watching him teeter on the brink of the abyss is the real suspense in this story.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Looking for gentle wisdom and beautiful writing? Try this collection of short stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. How I wish I’d read this book when I was younger, back when I read novels to try to understand the world and why people did what they did. These stories tease open the secret chambers of people’s hearts, revealing everyday pettiness and unexpected generosity. In some cases, we find motivations that are hidden even from the person herself.

If I were teaching a writing class, I’d assign this book as an original way to create character. Olive is a retired math teacher living in a small town in Maine. She has a difficult relationship with her son. Her husband, Henry, runs the town pharmacy. Although Olive is only a bit player in some of these stories, we grasp her essence by understanding what’s happened to her former students, by seeing how Henry befriends his mousy assistant in the pharmacy, by hearing her exchange a few words with her neighbors at the grocery store or a local concert. We watch Olive learn in the most unlikely way that a small kindness reaps a greater one.

In a small town everyone knows each other’s business. More than that, their lives are so closely tied up with each other’s that commonalities emerge, as a couple after years of living together come to resemble each other. By exploring the ramifications of a community’s everyday life, this book complements last week’s David Adams Richards book, which dwelt on the tragic consequences of gossip and boredom and self-importance. The tragedies here are smaller but no less painful. They are lightened by those rare moments of grace, when one person recognizes another’s pain or loneliness and speaks a gentle word to soothe it.

What I valued most was the insight into the long marriages, the ebb and flow of affection and loyalty. There are some young people in the book, but most of the stories explore the consciousness of older people, as for example those who have lost a spouse and feel the lack of someone to tell about the small things that have happened during the day.

With Harmon, we sense his unexpected melancholy now that the children are grown and gone. Although he struggled for years with the chaos they brought in their wake, keeping the house in a confusion of bickering and lost ice skates, he misses them now. Not his wife Bonnie, though. She’s taken off: joined a book club, written a recipe book, reinvented her life. She makes things: braids rugs, creates wreaths from dried roses and bayberry, sews quilted jackets. In Harmon’s hardware store, the customers talk about each other, about their hip problems, and he sees their loneliness. He finds himself visiting Daisy Foster, a recent widow. He brings her a doughnut.

It doesn’t sound like much, but really, it is. Patiently, Strout pursues her characters, sometimes catching them in a net, worn soft with years of use; sometimes slipping in the sharp filet knife and laying bare the hollow bones. She captures familiar turns of phase and spreads them before us: “Now was that so hard to do?” “Say, isn’t that something?” Each story is full of small truths, like realising you want to hear that someone is having more trouble with their child than you.

These are working people. We see them in their jobs, with their families, out for meal or a party. We are presented with life in its entirety, life in the round: petty jealousies, small prejudices and intolerances. Yet throughout the book there is, not a sweetness, but a current of acceptance, bracing and salty and aware. We are constantly aware that these people, however flawed, however small their lives, have value.

The Friends of Meager Fortune, by David Adams Richards

“Show; don’t tell,” novice writers are told, a cryptic rule which leads some of them to wail, “What does that mean?” Were I teaching an introductory creative writing class, I would use this book as an example.

The first 70 pages (Part I of the book) are almost entirely “telling”. The events preceding the main story are summarized: “The year after Will took over the entire Jameson tract, Owen fell in love with a whimsical, emotional girl named Lula Brower.” So much for falling in love, meat for any number of entire novels. Characters’ motivations, which writers are told to “show” through their actions and reactions, are laid out in plain, declarative sentences: “Nolan was certain of his position and did not like being challenged.” And imagery is made explicit, rather than leaving it for the reader to notice: “These were the gnarled and toughened trees. Like the men, they came to root in tough soil and could not be easily defeated.”

However, as with all rules, once you understand the “show; don’t tell” dictum, you may break it for effect, which is what Richards does here. This is the story of a logging family and the men who work for them in the harsh, 30-below woods. It is also the story of the townspeople whose opinions shift with the wind of rumors born of boredom, envy, greed, or pride. Richards’ incantatory narration is not only appropriate for these simple souls, but also puts the reader at a distance from the story, reminding us that it happened a long time ago (just before and after the Great War) and far away (New Brunswick in the Maritimes), making it over into a legend, something that has been handed down in the oral tradition. The forces that drive the story—unscrupulous labor barons and the damage done by irresponsible rumors—match those common to the stories of that time as well.

Two brothers are left to run their father’s lumber company after his early death, first Will, the golden boy who knows the woods and the trade, and then Owen, the frail, bookish younger brother who wants to read a million books. Once the groundwork is laid, Richards proceeds to show just what life in a lumber camp is like, harsh and brutal. He names the men and their roles: the “Push” who oversees the work, the “tend team” who feeds the horses, and the teamsters who work them: the Belgians, Clydesdales and Percherons. Some of the fallers use axes; some use saws to cut down the great trees, but none of them realise that that in a handful of years, they, their tools, and the horses will all be replaced by the mechanisation that is coming.

Richards takes great risks here, even as his woodsmen risk their lives and horses every time they race downhill in front of sleds carrying tons of timber. When he talks about the men or describes walking through the virgin woods at night with no guide or lamp but instinct and memory, he is not afraid to sound as sentimental as a Stephen Foster song. Many times I found myself thinking Ah, too bad; now he has ruined the book such as when he gives a twist to the title partway through. Yet, like the men hauling logs too heavy and working hours too long for any human to survive, Richards pushes on with his blunt, sometimes even clumsy sentences, refusing to give up. And he brings it off. Inevitably, ineluctably, he carries us away with him into this world and leaves us shaking with the wonder and the tragedy and the humanity of it all.