What I’ve Been Reading, September 2017

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – March is a trilogy of graphic novels co-written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, detailing Lewis’s involvement in the African-American civil rights movement, up to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Powell’s art is gorgeous and expressive. It captures the weight of small interpersonal moments as well as enormous, historical turning points. To borrow a word from Martin Luther King, it dramatizes the movement in a way that is visceral and inspiring.

For the most part, the books do a good job of interweaving narrative and history—partly because John Lewis’s personal narrative is so wrapped up in the historical events of that time. The mixing of scene and summary is effective, not bogging the reader down in prose, nor abandoning the reader without any through-line to grasp onto. Book two may be the weak link of the trilogy, with long sections of historical events in which Lewis didn’t personally play any part. These passages feel a bit dry and distant, without the narrative thrust or intriguing insights that Lewis offers in the other sections. However, I only really noticed this in book two, because the fact is, John Lewis truly was involved in so many important events at the time.

And that’s what’s terrific about these books—they aren’t just a third-person, documentarian presentation of history—they’re the story of a man who was at the heart of the movement, and who ended up straddling the lines of multiple factions within it. What I found most fascinating was not just the external conflict against people like Alabama Governor George Wallace or Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, but the internal conflict of the civil rights movement. Lewis was one of the earliest members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and over the course of the books, we see it change, growing much larger, becoming more impatient, and we see Lewis pushed further and further out of it. There’s also the internal conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties, as they struggle to reconstruct their agendas around the civil rights movement, and make massive shifts toward becoming the parties we see today.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer – This is the second book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, which centers on Area X, an area of coastline and marsh in the southeast US, in which all human life has been wiped out, while strange plants and animals thrive. Authority explores the Southern Reach, the agency tasked with researching and managing expeditions into Area X. Our protagonist is the new director, a transfer from another branch of “Central” after the previous director disappeared in the latest expedition. I was at first disappointed to find that this book doesn’t really feature any of Area X, as the first book did, but once I accepted that VanderMeer was doing something different with this novel, I could enjoy it for what it was.

What it is is a slow exploration of institutional decay. Rather than crossing marshes and watching out for wild boars, Control (as our main character prefers to be called) is wading through massive stores of data, and keeping a wary eye on the beleaguered staff of the institution, with their unknown motivations and inclinations. The book is a long, steady, burn, with a few little spikes of total strangeness or total morbidity peppered in. There were multiple instances—descriptions of sudden discoveries—that made me physically squirm and wriggle about in my chair as I read them.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a stand-alone, as it doesn’t come to its own resolution, and seems to mostly be setting up for the third book, but if you’ve read and enjoyed the first book, definitely keep reading.

“Night Fever” by Will Ludwigsen – This is a novelette that appeared in the March/April issue of Asimov’s set in an alternate universe in which Charles Manson stayed in prison another ten years, and so emerged into the disco era of the 70s, rather than the beatnik era of the 60s. Instead of “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles coming to symbolize Manson’s idea of the rapture, it’s “Night Fever” by the BeeGees. The story is told through excerpts of court transcripts, personal accounts, and essays, which weave together to describe an arc similar to, though not quite the same as, the Manson family’s development and eventual killings in our world.

Ludwigsen manages to have fun with this alternate history without ever breaking the suspension of disbelief (perhaps because Manson’s story is so unbelievable in the real world to begin with.) The piece is shot through with humor, of both the dark and the bizarre variety. One of my favorite excerpts is when a DJ recounts the night that the club allowed Charlie to take over the booth and play his special mixtape:

“In the end, Charlie got twenty minutes. Truman Fucking Capote was standing in the middle of the lights holding a thumbs down. That’s how bad it was.”

Fantastic. In a word, this story is visceral. Visceral laughs, visceral discomfort, visceral dread. The story shoves you face-to-face with Manson, and forces you to stare at him. It’s the kind of story to make you feel like you need a shower when you’re done reading it. Currently it’s only available in the issue it was published in, but it’s a solid issue overall, including a short novel by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, so if this description intrigues you, I’d check it out.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss – Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the Kingkiller Chronicle (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear), which I actually haven’t read—though I have read this novella, set in the same world. Slow Regard follows Auri, a girl who lives in the Underthing, a system of abandoned catacombs and chambers underneath the University (a magic school type place, a major setting in the other books.) Auri spends her days in the Underthing exploring, tidying, and foraging. She’s fixated on objects, and putting things in their proper places—to her, keys yearn for their locks, and a piece of fat is full of the pain and anguish of the slaughtered animal. So, in this novella set firmly in her viewpoint, there’s not really a plot. It’s more of a careful, poetic illustration of the Underthing, of Auri’s mind, her relationship to this hidden, abandoned world, which seems anything but abandoned to her, populated as it is with brooms and soap and blankets and mirrors and a light named Foxen and a strange beautiful golden gear.

Because Auri tries so hard to be small, to not get in the way of the proper order of the world, we don’t get much of a sense of her desires, her self-conception, what’s at stake for her here, which makes the book feel a little flat. There’s a feeling that she doesn’t have much to gain or to lose, which may be unavoidable given the way she sees the world. I suppose you’d get a similar sense of hollowness with a story told from the perspective of a robot—a fascinating, strange lens through which to view the world, but nothing on the viewing side of the lens. A beautiful stained glass window, casting multi-colored dapples of light into an empty, featureless chamber.

Also, maybe this isn’t a problem if you’ve read the books. Who knows. I’d still definitely recommend it. Rothfuss does an incredible job developing a sense of space. There’s a kind of incessant celebration in literary discussion of works that characterize cities, but what Rothfuss is doing here is something much more unique, and more difficult I’d say. He develops a three-dimensional space consisting of multiple locations, populated only with inanimate objects and one girl, and it all feels totally concrete, explorable, full of character and attitude. If that sounds interesting to you, check it out. It’s an uncommon type of book.

Blog housekeeping: First off, WordPress followers, you may’ve missed my second food waste post, because due to a bug it didn’t show up in the WordPress reader until four days after I published it. So don’t hold your breath for it, because it’s already here. Second off, and more importantly, the blog is gonna be on hiatus until October 20, at which point it will resume, probably with the first chapters of The War of Paraguay. There may be posts in the mean time, but I don’t have any planned, and they definitely won’t be weekly. See you on the other side!

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