What I’ve Been Reading, November 2017

I’ve been reading all kinds of Toni Morrison and all kinds of mystery books, because those are the two English classes I’m in this semester. So you can expect more Morrison and more mystery in the next What I’ve Been Reading post—but that’s actually What I‘ll Be Reading. Let’s get into the ‘ve Been.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley — This was one of the books in my Mystery/Detective Fiction class, and one of my two favorites that we’ve read so far. My other favorite is Big Little Lies, which I’ll discuss below—the two are sort of tied. Devil in a Blue Dress is Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins mystery, and damn if it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of them. In this book, Easy isn’t yet a PI—he’s just a working-class African-American man who’s moved to Los Angeles in the Second Great Migration, after serving in World War II. A day after being fired from his job, a man approaches him offering money for him to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who often visits black jazz clubs. After some reluctance, Easy takes the job—and spends the remainder of the book trying to work his way out of the dangerous web he’s put himself in.

It doesn’t really have the precision and clarity of a detective story, mainly because at various points Easy doesn’t give a shit about solving any kind of mystery. It’s more like what would happen if an ordinary person wandered into the middle of a hard-boiled detective world, bumping into various rackets and intrigues, but not doggedly pursuing any hidden truth. Easy does end up solving some mysteries, and does so well enough that by the end he decides to become a professional PI, but the plot of the book is really about him trying to survive. To that end, it’s a great book. Well-paced, fun characters painted in many different shades of sinister, and a first-person narrator with lots of attitude.

What makes it stand out is the multitude of broader issues it manages to touch on. Obviously, being a crime novel with a black protagonist in 1940s L.A., the book addresses race and police brutality, but more unexpectedly, it also delves into masculinity, the effects of war on veterans, and, principally, money. Here’s one quote that should give you an idea of what I mean:

“Mr. Todd Carter was so rich that he didn’t even consider me in human terms. … It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn’t even recognize our difference showed that he didn’t care one damn about me.”

And later on in that chapter,

“I got the idea, somehow, that if I got enough money then maybe I could buy my own life back.”

The book is full of these little observations, and scenes which prove the truth in them. They bring a level of grit to the book beyond just the aesthetic grit of the hard-boiled genre, a grating toughness that penetrates beyond the world of the book and into our own world. It’s a quick read, and well worth it.

Displacement by Lucy Knisley — Displacement is a graphic novel memoir which describes a cruise trip Lucy Knisley went on with her grandparents. As Knisley sets up, her paternal grandparents have dementia to varying degrees, so if she doesn’t accompany them, they can’t go on the trip. While the trip, and the various snafus that arise from the combination of travel and alzheimer’s, form the main body of the story, Knisley weaves in memories of her grandparents from her childhood, and excerpts from her grandfather’s own memoir, describing his experiences in WWII.

Knisley is unflinching in her portrayal of mortality and senescence, and at the same time finds the humor in the stressful situations which arise throughout the book. What could’ve been a simple travelogue, transporting the reader onto a caribbean ocean liner, is instead a multi-layered story of family expectations, quarter-life-crisis, and end-of-life care.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty — Another book I read for my mystery fiction class, another book which is positively fantastic. In the first chapter of Big Little Lies we learn that a student’s parent has died at a school trivia night, and a murder investigation has been launched into the death. Then the book jumps back “Six Months Before the Trivia Night,” and spends the majority of its length working up to that point. And throughout, we get snippets of witness statements from tertiary characters who were at the trivia night—though nothing from the main and secondary characters.

There are three main characters—Madeline, Celeste, and Jane—three mothers who have children entering kindergarten at the same time. Jane is a young single mother with one boy, Ziggy, whose father is alluded to as being some dark, troubling element in Jane’s past. Madeline has two kids, one the daughter of her ex-husband, once an absentee-father, now remarried and trying to be a good dad, with joint custody over their daughter, the other the daughter of Madeline’s new husband. And Celeste has an apparently perfect life, with two lovely twin boys and a fabulously wealthy husband—though she too has some initially unknown trouble hanging over her. Madeline and Celeste, already friends, quickly befriend Jane, and try to help her navigate the school politics of Pirriwee—a small coastal town, so small that children and parents of all backgrounds are pushed together into the same single school.

More than a mystery, this book is a spectacular drama. Each of the three main characters has some fundamental source of struggle in her life—Madeline’s strained relationship with her ex, and their daughter, for example—upon which more and more conflicts are heaped throughout the story. The knowledge that the book is heading toward a fatality provides this tension early on, but pretty soon the suspense and anxiety of the book is being perfectly sustained on its own. The last third or so of the book, Piriwee becomes a pressure cooker, and when I got to this point in the audiobook, every free second I got I would be listening to it. With these three characters, Moriarty is able to explore the enormous pressures placed on mothers and on women, describing stories of abuse, self-esteem, sexuality, family, money. Not that this book has a thesis statement—it is primarily a riveting symphony of interpersonal struggles, but it does a masterful job of putting the reader in these no-win situations that are, to varying degrees of severity, experienced ubiquitously among women.

I’m about to start watching the HBO miniseries adaptation, and I’m so excited to re-experience all the twists and turns, all the lovable and hatable and bothable characters. I highly recommend this book, and I can highly recommend the audiobook of it read by Caroline Lee.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison — Of the three Morrison books I’ve read so far (The Bluest Eye and Sula being the other two), Song of Solomon is easily my favorite. Morrison’s complexity and nuance, her simultaneous poetic and concrete voice, are present in all three novels, but in Song of Solomon her characters get a chance to breathe.  In Sula and the Bluest Eye, it seems like characters and themes only ever get one scene—that is, if we’re to understand that a character is a conformist, there will be only one scene where that conformism is strongly showcased. This makes for a faster read, but not as much weight and heft to the themes and characters, with only one or two really substantial characters in a whole book. In Song of Solomon, Morrison takes the time to rework themes and characters, developing a rich portrait of the black experience, family life, and wealth.

The book follows Macon Dead III, known by all as Milkman, the son of a property manager in an unnamed city in Michigan. Milkman seems to be plagued by people who “want his life”—his friend Guitar wants him to care more about racism, his dad wants him to work for him and eventually take over the business, his ex-girlfriend literally wants to take his life—but Milkman just wants to cruise through life without trouble. The first part of the novel steadily develops the characters surrounding Milkman, their backstories, their current entanglements—a typical Morrisonian cast, from all different social backgrounds with all different lifestyles, each person complicated, each person more than one thing. The second part of the book really begins when Milkman learns that his aunt Pilate has some gold that she and Milk’s father found when they were kids, and Milkman, Macon Dead II, and Guitar plan to steal it. Getting the gold is not a straightforward proposition, and Milkman eventually has to travel south, retracing his father’s migration in reverse, to try and find the treasure—believing that in some way, this gold will set him free from all the people trying to own him.

Morrison’s understanding of human nature, of interpersonal conflict, is impeccable. Every character is overflowing with insightful details about how people contend with social status, with capitalism, with racism, with love—and by the end of the book, you have a wonderful sense of the landscape that Milkman inhabits. I think it’s the mark of a terrific novel that I could, with ease, list off a dozen or more characters from it, and discuss their desires and flaws in depth. I highly recommend it.

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