The List – A Fiction Roundup

If you’ve read any of my other columns about my reading adventures, maybe you’ve figured out by now that I’m not exactly writing book “reviews,” as I’d originally been asked to do. Instead, I’m writing more about just the process of reading through this arbitrary set of lists I’ve given myself; I read a lot of interesting and diverse stuff that way.

But I don’t feel like it really qualifies me to “review” books. Like any art form, books are utterly subjective…especially when it comes to fiction. Who am I to tell you what to read? What I love, you might not, and vice versa. Even my own book appreciation evolves: What I loved 10 years ago or even last year might just hit me wrong if I re-read it now.

So when it comes to fiction, it makes more sense to me to just share with you what I’ve read recently, tell you what I found interesting or noteworthy about it, and let you pursue it or not as you see fit.

In that vein, some recent reads:

The Green Mile by Stephen King (fiction; 1996)

Hard to think of a more prolific or popular contemporary American author than Stephen King: He’s written upwards of 50 novels, and has published multiple story collections and several works of nonfiction. His work has also spawned movies, mini-series, and even TV shows, and covers a number of genres from horror to fantasy to science fiction to suspense. 

Mile is a Depression-era death row drama. Narrated as a memoir by the head warden, Paul Edgecomb, late in life, Mile describes the fall of 1932, when a series of unusual and memorable prisoners came through the Green Mile on their way to the electric chair. None made as big an impression (both literally and figuratively) on Edgecomb and his colleagues as John Coffey, a mystical black vagrant who’s come from nowhere and was on his way to nothing when he was arrested for the murder of two little girls.

In an interesting nod to the past, Mile was originally published in serial form, in six trade paperbacks published monthly from March 1996 through August 1996. By that time, King had begun shifting from his earlier focus on horror and thrillers to work that was more supernatural in nature; he even wrote some pretty traditional fiction further down the road. And by 1996, he had already written Misery, which might be better categorized as a thriller. The Green Mile is none of those things.

I’d almost classify it as a fable, or legend; a story based in reality, but with an element of fantasy. The plot hinges on just a touch of something magical, that small taste of the supernatural that King often employed. As in more traditional fables, the characters are one-dimensional; they are wholly “good” or “bad,” and the bad are (spoiler alert) punished accordingly. (As a side note, one might argue that to find a majority of death-row wardens in 1930s Georgia that were actually sympathetic and kindly toward their prisoners, even the black ones, stretches the limits of imagination…but it does make for a nice book.

Unfortunately, Mile relies heavily on the trope of what filmmaker Spike Lee and others have called the “Magical Negro”…a character who seems to exist without any needs of his own; whose only purpose is to help white people solve their problems. (In The Green Mile, the character takes it a step farther by being ACTUALLY magical. In fact, Lee referred to this particular character, John Coffey, as a “super-duper Magical Negro” during a college lecture tour in 2001, along with the title character from the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”) This might not be a problem in one book, but Stephen King is no stranger to the Magical Negro. Some version of this character shows up in The Shining, The Stand, and The Talisman as well.

This doesn’t make it a bad read. A modern-day subplot involving a sadistic nursing-home attendant seems unconnected, but other than that, The Green Mile is beautifully written, evocative, and compelling, and I enjoyed reading it.

But 20 years on, regular use of the Magical Negro stereotype can feel off-putting and disingenuous. While it’s often used to portray a character who is spiritually deeper and wiser than the white protagonist(s), it claims to be empowering the black character, but in reality does the opposite. The Magical Negro’s wisdom and spirituality are employed only to help the white lead, and isn’t threatening because he or she is usually subordinate, developmentally delayed, uneducated, or any combination thereof. And, 20 years on, it isn’t even gone from popular culture…a version of it can be found on one of TV’s most popular shows, “This Is Us,” in its first season (the dying-father character William, played by Ron Cephas Jones). Full disclosure: I love the show. I’m just saying.

Again, The Green Mile remains an enjoyable, interesting read…just take it with a hefty dose of salt.

After my dreary 2017 spent reading 600-page biographies, it’s been delightful so far this year to engage in some good, plot-driven fiction reading. This next book also falls into this category:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (future fiction; 1996)

When I mentioned this novel (the author’s first) to people around me, it seemed like everyone had already read it, but I had never even heard of it before. Sparrow describes the discovery of life on another planet in the year 2019; in fact, in another galaxy. Catholic priest Emilio Sandoz, who has an affinity for languages, first proposes the idea of trying to make contact; the Catholic Church agrees on the importance of the mission, and funds a trip of eight individuals who will do research, make contact with any alien life…and perhaps convert a few souls along the way?

The travelers land on a planet they come to call Rakhat, and are delighted to discover many species of plant and animal life in an ecosystem similar enough to our own that they can easily survive. They interact with the locals for several years, learning as much as they can, until contact is made with another local species…who aren’t quite as friendly.

The author was inspired by the 500th-anniversary celebrations of Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1992; in a later interview, she commented on the challenges of judging the results of first-contact experiences: “It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the 20th century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight.” Thus, her travelers are modern, resourceful, well-educated, well-meaning, open-minded, and respectful…but even with all that on their side, their very presence creates ripple effects they could not possibly foresee.

The Sparrow also asks us to confront our ideas about God and faith. As long as humans have existed, we have asked why, if there is a God, He allows bad things to happen. The Sparrow takes it a step further. Protagonist Sandoz, whose idea the mission trip was, is a nonbeliever in spite of being a priest. Through the discovery of and connection with alien life, all the things that had to happen just right in order for positive contact to be made, Sandoz finds his faith; he’s found the exact thing he was born to do, and believes he was led to this place and time by God Himself. Confronting the existence of life on a new planet, and the amazing relationships that are established as a result, convinces him that God not only does exist, but must exist. How else could this miracle have happened…? He comes to see, know, and trust God…to believe, to have faith where previously none existed.

But when a horrific chain of events is set in motion with results more appalling than anyone could imagine, Sandoz’ faith is deeply scarred. “If I was led…to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances, is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”

These descriptions may sound as though the book focuses on the philosophical. It’s actually an energetic, action-filled novel that engages the reader even as it produces more questions than answers; it would make a great book-club selection. I’m looking forward to seeing what resolution Sandoz might find in Russell’s sequel, Children of God.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (short stories; 2015)

I don’t even like short stories, and this was one I intended to skim through. But I couldn’t put it down. This falls into the category of “interconnected” short stories, in that variations of the same character flow throughout many of them. Mostly the stories are told from her point of view; but sometimes she is a minor character in a third-person narrative. The character, who goes by different names throughout, are often semi-autobiographical versions of the author herself.

This interconnectedness makes for a more novel-like structure, and I suppose that’s what I find appealing. Often, collections of traditional short fiction vary widely in content and tone, leaving me feeling like I’m just getting to know a character when the story ends abruptly. (If you’re looking for another great short-story read, I can’t recommend highly enough the Vietnam War-set The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.The two collections reminded me a lot of each other.)

Manual has an interesting backstory. Author Berlin had a checkered life; she lived all over the world, in both great poverty and in high society, and at various times she was, yes, a cleaning woman…and also a teacher, a nurse, a college professor, and eventually a published author. And always, she was an alcoholic and a mother. She wrote these stories over the course of 40 years, but only in 2015 were they collected together, almost a dozen years after her death.

It’s unusual for a book like this to get as much play as it has. Lucia Berlin wrote a few items for journals and magazines, but didn’t publish her first collection of short stories with a small-scale publisher until she was 45 years old. She was never as widely-read as she maybe should have been…especially given that her few publications were critically acclaimed over the years (one of her short stories won the Jack London Short Prize in 1985; and a collection of stories won an American Book Award in 1991).

Eventually, at age 58, she was offered a two-year teaching position as a Visiting Writer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she won a teaching award. She stayed on as an associate professor until 2000, and died in 2004.

And eleven years later, this book appears. Manual was compiled by writer Stephen Emerson, Berlin’s close friend of 25 years. It would be a delight if more people could discover her because of it; it received virtually universal good reviews when published in 2015. Because the author was deceased, and the book was re-collected material, it was ineligible for many year-end awards, but it was named to a large number of best-of lists, including the New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2015,” NPR’s “Guide to 2015’s Great Reads,” Publishers Weekly “Best Books of 2015,” etc. It was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

So, the backstory was already interesting…but then reading the book was such a gratifying surprise. I’d be hard-pressed to define exactly why I like these stories, even. It’s just: They’re INTERESTING. Some are harrowing; some are funny; some are depressing as all get-out. But they stay with me. It’s hard not to admire someone who has survived as much as this woman has, and who can talk about it so creatively and yet with such detachment. One can imagine that she must have been a very interesting–but maybe difficult–person to know.

Lest you think I love every book I read, they’re not all winners. I happen to have read a lot of good fiction lately, but I’d avoid:

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken (fiction; 1996)

This was a quick read told from the POV of a librarian in small-town Cape Cod during the 1950s. She strikes up a friendship with an 11-year-old boy with gigantism (excessive growth) who’s a regular visitor to her library, and soon realizes she’s falling in love with the child (yes). Two misfits who don’t quite fit in to their small town’s daily life, they become unlikely friends and gradually, the librarian (Peggy) seems to conflate her maternal and romantic impulses, and builds her entire life around the boy (James). It evolves from picking out books she knows he’ll like to visiting him in the hospital, and as his growth continues unabated, eventually she arranges for a special house and car to be constructed for him. She helps him get the only kind of “job” he can, first making appearances at a shoe company that constructs his specially-made shoes, and then for a circus that will pay him for appearances. She drives him everywhere he goes.

Author Elizabeth McCracken, a former librarian herself, was a National Book Award finalist with this, her first book. You might also know her from her 2014 short-story collection entitled Thunderstruck & Other Stories.

The writing was lovely and I did respect that the narrator, Peggy, was self-aware about her own flaws and challenges in getting along with people. She feels like an outcast (which is mostly self-created) and although he’s well-liked and popular among other kids, James becomes one as well due to his inability to live any kind of normal life. They finally click together, but it didn’t redeem her in my eyes. Peggy is misanthropic and frankly pathetic, and so unlikeable that I just couldn’t really love her, or the book; the ending seemed completely far-fetched. I wanted to like this book more; instead, I ended up merely “appreciating” it.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to. Tune in next time! Upcoming fiction on my to-read list includes Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman; Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott; and The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon.

 

Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Also, as her editor, I would like to ask what the hell she has against short stories. Contact her at info@nexttenwords.com

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