This installment: magic realism in Sweden (f); strange doings in Alabama (f); a graphic memoir about living with cancer (f); Jews surviving WWII (f); Coates on CD (nf); and rough life in South L.A. (f).
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman
Magical realism in Sweden, as young Elsa is charged with delivering letters to various folks in which her dying grandmother indeed apologizes for her outrageous behavior towards each of them. Granny has fed Elsa imaginative tales which help her get to sleep and make mystical sense of the crazy world out there, though eccentric Granny is considered the crazy one by most of society. They live in a building full of odd denizens, some combative and some reclusive. Peculiar, for sure, but magical indeed and I love the weave of stories into “real life,” which provides a lifeline for a smart little girl presented with challenges that would floor most of us.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Harnett
I seem to have stumbled into a clutch of novels about weird behavior in “everyday” life, and here’s another. Freedom, Alabama where Elvis (a girl) lives with her dad and her sister Lizzie who suffers from the same malady that killed their mother: sleepwalking. Her mother’s ritual of baking rabbit-shaped cakes for family celebrations turns into a quest to keep Lizzie from flipping out by making enough cakes to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. Animals provide distraction and solace for Elvis when she volunteers for a local zoo. And she’s always researching factors that might have led to her mother’s drowning. What really hooked me was a quality of tenderness and concern that prevailed despite all that dysfunction, and also Elvis’s constant curiosity that leads her into surprising areas of exploration.
In-Between Days by Teva Harrison
Subtitled a memoir about living with cancer. One of my “favorite” subjects—awareness and grace amid the rubble of bad health. (Is it a form of magical thinking: if I subject myself to it on the page, I won’t have to face it in “real life,” or if I do, I’ll have a roadmap for getting through it better?) In any case, this one is stellar. In Toronto at age 37, Teva was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer. As part of her treatment she found herself delving into childhood wounds and put her tangled feelings out on the page visually so she could release them. Here we get those raw graphic depictions of her experiences backed up with more of her story. So this is life on the edge, terrifying and joyous in turn, unleashed!
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
Another “specialty” of mine is reading about people going through atrocities and emerging relatively whole. WWII is a rich minefield. Increasing anti-Semitism 1939 in Poland strips away the settled contentment of the Kurc family and thrusts them into desperate action. They are forced to scatter and live with increasing fear and privation, some as far away as Rio de Janeiro and Siberia. They have to call on inner strengths and resources we wouldn’t have predicted from the early, easy days of the book. Hunter gleaned these stories from her family after she discovered their history when she was 15. A not so ironic title—everyone survived. Researched in depth and very well told.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I resisted this book when it first made such a splash but came around through the CD version, read by the author. Nothing like the sealed capsule of the car to bring uncomfortable material up close, personal, and ultimately eloquent and moving. There’s the weird phrase “people who believe they are white,” courtesy James Baldwin. (That’s me.) Coates refers often to the vulnerability of his body as a black man and to the unconscious underground roots of racism. There’s a quality of incantation and oratory to the material, especially in his voice, that evokes the stirring nature of sermons. A mix of anecdotes, personal testimony, history, and inquiry—disquieting and deeply thought provoking.
Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love
South LA’s rough, and Lola is a fierce example of what’s needed to survive. She lives with Garcia, putative leader of the Crenshaw gang, and a drug deal has gone badly awry. Either it gets put to right or there will be fatal retaliation that will come down on her head. So Lola musters her considerable smarts and series of heart-stopping moves ricochet along until the slam-bang finish. There’s also a child to save along the way. Here’s a heroine of the dark side, as it were, that makes for a spicy, suspenseful read.
Back next week.