What I’ve Been Reading, April 2019

Been a while since I did one of these, I guess because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. Anyway, here’s what all I’ve been reading the past few months (my god it’s been four months since I read Heavy where did the time go I’m about to graduate aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.) Also, I recently read Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, which I had a lot to say about, so that’ll be posted as its own review a few days from now.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon — As the subtitle describes it, Heavy is “an American memoir,” following Kiese Laymon from his childhood up to his early adulthood, returning again and again to themes of abuse, education, body image, racism, and America.

Incredibly, even with these heavy themes, whenever I started listening to this book, I just couldn’t stop. I even listened to it on my airplane ride from Cedar Rapids to Atlanta! Let me tell you, on airplanes I only ever listen to podcasts, or music. Stuff that does not require a lot of cerebral commitment. But when I ran out of saved podcasts, I started listening to Heavy, and the hours just flew by.

Part of the engrossing pull of this book may have to do with how novel-like it is. It’s composed primarily of scenes, scenes that are fully fleshed out with long stretches of vivid dialog, and intriguing, instantly identifiable characters. And the narrative voice shifts to fit the different phases of Kiese’s life. There’s no sense of retrospective distance between the narrator and the events he’s describing, and the result is that as a reader you can be fully immersed in these remembered moments as they play out. That said, Laymon still manages to address more abstract ideas—the book is not just a series of things that happened, it does also pull revelations out of those events, which steadily accumulate and build on one another throughout the book. As I said, it is novel-like, and the novel that it is like is a novel which expertly joins theme with narrative, emotions with ideas, character with critique.

One of the major themes that I enjoyed seeing develop throughout the book was education. (I mean, I could write a whole paper on this, seriously.) For the majority of the book, Kiese is a student, at various institutions, sometimes navigating predominantly white settings, at other times just dealing with the unfair power dynamics inherent in any school. As well, his mother is a teacher, and she is a major source of his education, trying to give him the best education she can so that he can protect himself with it as he grows older. Where all this really landed for me though was in the latter half of the book, when Kiese becomes a teacher, and describes how he repeatedly fails his students, or has trouble trying to give them what they need without overstepping his bounds.

And that role reversal is present with a lot of the themes of this book. Kiese describes how people in his life hurt him, but also how he hurt others, and arrives at a greater understanding of human behavior thereby.

And the prose is fantastic. If you’ve read anything by Laymon then you already know. If you haven’t, know that his writing is weighty, rhythmic, and highly attuned to the feel and connotation of the words he chooses. Laymon describes in this book how his grandma bends language to express herself, and how he and his classmates take hold of new vocab to create their own vernacular, and his prose clearly shows how he has retained this inventive, expressive approach to language as a writer.

As I said, I listened to the audiobook of Heavy, read by Kiese Laymon himself, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Laymon does a great job with character (as it were) voices, and it’s wonderful to hear the timbre of his own voice change as he progresses from child to adult. Even if you don’t normally go in for audiobooks, this may be one to check out. Regardless, Heavy is a fantastic book, and though I read it at the end of 2018, it’s easily one of my favorites of that year.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott The subtitle of this book describes it as “Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” which is a pretty good summationthough I would add, a lot of this book is descriptions of Lamott’s own experiences writing, and that “Life” is perhaps a bit overstated in that subtitle. While there are sections that are really just about writing, there are no sections that are just about lifethough there are plenty where the two topics mix.

The first part of this book offered some pretty familiar writing advice for me, but as the book progressed from there I found myself enjoying it more and more. Because Part One, simply titled “Writing,” mostly focuses on the craft of writing, with chapters like “Plot,” “Dialogue,” and “Set Design.” There were some good insights in there, and “Shitty First Drafts” is always worth a reread, but overall it’s stuff that will be familiar to anyone whose taken some writing classes or read a few books on writing. Where the book really excelled for me was in Lamott’s treatment of the full experience of being a writerall the parts of being a writer that aren’t the writing itself. A professor of mine, Naomi Greyser, described it as a book about the lived experience of being a writer, and the further into the book I read the more I found that to be true. Lamott discusses the disappointments of publication, the benefits of finding a writing group, the jealousy brought on by successful friendsand with all of this, she offers some advice and some personal anecdotes. The personal stories are great because they’re validatingI found myself repeatedly marking down in my book where I had had similar experiences, or where Anne Lamott essentially called me out personally. And the advice synthesizes these experiences into succinct, incisive thoughts. I hesitate to even call it advice, because Lamott doesn’t present it as though it is some kind of solutionbecause Lamott herself repeatedly says that she still has all the problems she’s talking about. More often, the wisdom she provides is a framework to think about things, or a reassurance that whatever problem you’re having is part of the process.

And the book is very funny. Lamott has a way of boiling down an idea or a feeling into just a few words that is both relatable and hilarious. Like a lot of good standup comedians, Lamott comes off as very real, someone who’s in the thick of it just like everyone else, and that’s where a lot of the humor comes from. The following quote never fails to amuse me:

“Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morningsitting there, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.”

I’d absolutely recommend this to beginning writers and older writers alike. Word of warning, it is a bit dated, with phrases like “ethnic people” and “autistic” thrown around carelessly. Not really in a mean way, just in an unthinking 90s liberal writer kind of a way. Other than that, the book definitely holds up, and is worthy of its fame among writers.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu — Despite the oh-my-god-are-you-serious-could-you-get-more-generic title, The Grace of Kings is actually a quite unique epic fantasy novel, for numerous reasons. It takes place on the seven islands of Dara, an archipelago of island nations recently conquered and united into the Xana Empire. The book begins with an attempt on the Emperor’s life, and things only grow more unstable from there. Pretty soon an uprising begins, and two figures emerge as key players in the rebellion: Kuni Garu, a cunning gangster/bandit/bureaucrat; and Mata Zyndu, superhuman warrior, and the last in a line of Dukes slaughtered by the Xana Empire.

And really, that’s just where the book starts things rolling. Although this book has been compared a lot to A Song of Ice and Fire, it differs from the first book in that series (indeed, a lot of first books in epic fantasy series) in that it is not trying to set-up a sequel. The book is the first in a planned trilogy, but it stands wonderfully on its own, and doesn’t seem to hold back anything for the other books. It’s also pleasantly short—as far as these books go. Compare: the audiobook for Grace of Kings (which I listened to) is just over twenty hours long. The audiobook for A Game of Thrones is over thirty hours long. The Name of the Wind is around twenty-eight hours. The Way of Kings is 45 hours long??!?!? Uh, sorry, I got distracted there a bit. Point is, it’s long enough to pack in a ton of characters and a big setting, but it’s not an overwhelming commitment to read it. Perhaps this is Ken Liu’s background as a short-story-ist showing through.

And that’s another thing that sets this book apart. It’s an epic narrative composed of small moments, individual stories that are almost episodic at times. This provides a wonderful feeling of freshness to the story—there are always new characters to discover, new little nooks and crannies of the world to find yourself immersed in, all while continually building toward the major conflicts and turning points of the book.

That said, the two main characters of the book are incredibly compelling as well, and I loved seeing the conflict and growing brotherhood in their relationship. Mata and Kuni just have wonderful chemistry, and their relationship is really the spine of the book.

As far as the world of the story, it’s certainly not clichéd or dull, though it never got me all that excited to learn more about it. Really, I think the innovations Liu brings to the genre are more about style and tone than world-building. This book is not just A Song of Ice and Fire but replace the pseudo-Europe with a pseudo-China (I mean there is a clear East Asian influence in a lot of the world-building, but that’s not what’s exciting about the book.) It’s more like A Song of Ice and Fire but replace the historical fiction influence with a classical fiction influence. Like, Mata Zyndu is as larger than life as Achilles or Odysseus—and there are straight up scenes where all the gods of Dara are bickering with one another! The gods are characters! Who does that? Ken Liu does that.

The Grace of Kings was a fantastic listen (performed by Michael Kramer, who was terrific with all the voices he had to juggle), and it’s got me pumped to check out the sequel.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela Long Walk to Freedom is a long book. It’s the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, as well as a history of the freedom movement within South Africa. The book was actually written by Richard Stengel, a journalist who interviewed Nelson Mandela over the course of several months, and had access to a much briefer (only 15000 words) autobiography that Mandela wrote himself while he was in prison. At 28 hours, the audiobook took me about a month to get through, and I was listening to it a lot. That said, the book never drags, because Mandela’s life was an eventful and varied one. Really, Long Walk to Freedom feels like a whole series of books, each dealing with a different phase of Mandela’s life and the freedom movement, each new phase building on the last. From his childhood to his education to his days as a lawyer to his participation in the African National Congress to his travels abroad to the drawn-out Rivonia trial to his imprisonment to his freedom to the messy business of transitioning to democracy, I never grew bored of the book.

I think a large part of why I stayed so engaged with the book is how informative it is. It’s clearly written for an international audience unfamiliar with South Africa, yet because it’s so long, Stengel doesn’t have to simplify or repackage things to cater to Americans. The book does a great job of establishing what life was like in South Africa at that time, especially for the African population, and it sketches out all the major moments of the struggle between the ANC and the National Party. It’s also very informative as a book about activism and democracy, detailing the failures and victories of the ANC, and full of insights from Mandela about the nitty gritty of affecting change, and how his ideas about activism developed throughout his life.

As I said in a recent LYCC comic, it was very satisfying to listen to because I knew that it would have a happy ending. I mean, this is just one of the things that is satisfying about narratives in general: the ability to see the whole picture, something we rarely get in our own lives. So listening to this book, hearing Mandela’s insights about resistance and protest, it was definitely comforting.

Truly, the length of this book is one of its greatest strengths. It takes its time describing events, characters, settings. It peppers in hundreds of anecdotes to explain or exemplify whatever Mandela is talking about. It never runs out of steam, but it’s never in a hurry. It’s maximalist in the best way, using that maximalism to make a statement about the pace of social change, and the enormous scope necessary to truly comprehend the struggle for social justice. The book disproves the notion that these things just happen over night, or in one sudden burst, lead by one or two heroes, because it shows the entire history of developing awareness and strengthening solidarity that it takes to have a sudden uprising, detailing the enormous cast of activists and supporters who took part at various levels of the freedom struggle. It also, at least for me, gives comfort that the actions taken even when they seem pointless, even when no progress is being made, are still important. One of my favorite quotes comes during Mandela’s decades-long imprisonment, when he says,

“There are victories whose glory lies only in the fact that they are known to those who win them. This is particularly true of prison, where one must find consolation in being true to one’s ideas even if no one else knows of it.”

I picked up this book because I’m working on a play about a protest (yet again), and found it enormously informative, inspirational, and just an incredibly enjoyable listen. Stengel did an excellent job of preserving the oral quality of the interviews he conducted, creating a book that is very personable, that has all the charisma of Mandela himself. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in social justice, activism, or the history of South Africathough even if you’re none of those things, it’s a highly engaging book, and it might just make you interested in all three.

I listened to the version narrated by Michael Boatman, who does a great job, though I wish they’d gotten an actual South African narrator. (Boatman does what, to my ear, sounds like an African South African accent, though even if it is a spot on rendition of an elderly Xhosa L2 English speaker’s idiolect, why not get a narrator who’s actually from there?)

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