NBA Longlist quick reviews

by Sunita

The NBA shortlists come out on Wednesday, October 10. I’ve read 5+ of the 10 books at this point. Here are three brief-ish reviews of books that were worth reading but not at the top of my list, and one DNF.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads cover

This is a debut collection of short stories, some of which have been published elsewhere. It’s uneven but well worth reading. The first and last stories deal with black men shot by police and the effects on those around them. They involve more than that, but I found it interesting that we begin and end the collection with those, because most of the stories have very different emphases. It’s as if the author was saying that we can’t escape that reality, and she’s right. Both are gut-punches in expected and unexpected ways, and I found them very effective.

The other stories that worked really well for me were the ones that featured Fatima, a young black girl and then woman who is one of only two black students in her majority-white private school in Southern California. We are introduced to her indirectly in an epistolary story in which the two mothers engage in escalating one-upmanship and hostility. I found this clever, but much more cruel than funny. But Fatima’s own stories are fully of empathy, nuance, and complexity.

There is one other pair of connected stories which felt more like vignettes than full stories. The characters aren’t well developed and they seem more designed to make a point than to illuminate the people in them. I found that to be a recurring issue in the rest of the collection. The author does write young women well; older women and men, not so much.

The writing is assured and stylish. It occasionally has that workshopped feel (one story’s ending is shocking as you read it and then completely predictable in retrospect), but these stories were workshopped. I read in an interview that Fatima’s stories began as a novella, and perhaps that’s why they worked so well for me. There’s just more there to engage with.

3.5 stars at Goodreads.

The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner

Boatbuilder cover

This is a quiet, meditative book which combines a fictionalized version of Shopcraft as Soulcraft with the experiences of an opiod addict. Berg is a 28 year old who developed his addiction after a severe concussion. He leaves his high-paying but soul-sucking job in the San Francisco tech industry to move up to the Muire (Marin) County coast. He settles in Talinas, which is a very lightly fictionalized mashup of the small towns around Tomales Bay and Point Reyes, and he takes up boatbuilding with a mentor named Alejandro. He tries to get himself clean and figure out what to do with his life.

Talinas and the surrounding towns and people come across as a rural NorCal version of the quirky towns and townspeople we regularly see on TV. It’s more Cicely, AK or Stars Hollow than Twin Peaks, but the townspeople all fill out the various eccentric-but-lovable categories. Alejandro is an idealized version of the Wise Old Man Who Has Seen Everything. He has many, many talents, a lovely wife and family, and a farm that supports them all. Well, actually his boatbuilding business supports them, and the main customer is a drug dealer (only marijuana, none of the bad stuff) who transports his cargo from Mexico to the US in Alejandro’s beautiful wooden sailboats.

The writing style is of the type that seems to be very popular now: it’s not minimalist, exactly, but it’s unadorned and focused on the mundane:

The best place to see a boat leave was Bear’s Landing. These days it was a campground but, according to Alejandro, it had first been settled by Ed Vaquero, an American who gathered abalone and whose last name was not actually Vaquero. No one knew his real name, said Alejandro, but it was not Vaquero. In any case, if you climbed up on the dunes behind the campground at Bear’s Landing, you had a panoramic view of the bay and the ocean and this is what Uffa, Berg, and Alejandro did the day Pat left for Mexico.

I enjoyed reading this, but I didn’t feel as if I was getting something I hadn’t read before. Berg himself wasn’t all that interesting, and Alejandro was too idealized. The women are … fine? They’re also idealized and not particularly interesting as people; they mostly are sympathetic and attractive and supportive (to be fair, though, they lead independent lives and aren’t just appendages of the male characters). This is very much a man’s book, even though it’s about not-quite-mature men in their 20s in a very 21stC way rather than a Hemingway, Mailer, or Updike 20thC way.

3 stars at Goodreads.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement.

Gun Love cover

Clement is a poet and novelist and this is the second part of a duology. It took me several chapters to get into the story; I had to force myself to accept the premises and the characters, which were so unrealistic that presumably they were meant to be symbolic rather than reflective of society and people as we know them. Once I did that I admired aspects of the style and story, although it never really worked for me.

The narrator, whose POV is the only one presented, is a 15 year old girl named Pearl who lives with her mother in a 1994 Mercury Topaz at the edge of a trailer park in central Florida. Pearl goes to school and Margot goes to a cleaning job at the local VA hospital, but those are the only “normal” things about them. Margot became pregnant at 15 and ran away from her abusive father and her wealthy life, taking only a few very valuable keepsakes with her. The trailer park’s popoulation is down to a handful of residents, including a preacher, a veteran with PTSD and his wife and daughter (the latter is Margot’s close friend), a Mexican couple, and a mother and grown daughter (the latter collects Barbie dolls). You get the picture: we have Florida picaresque-gothic. In case we don’t get the message, Pearl visits a circus museum later in the novel.

The writing is extremely poetic and there are motifs that are repeated over and over. There is a lot of symbolic imagery. That style is juxtaposed with events that in real life would be extremely harsh and traumatic, but here they are muted because of the romanticism of the presentation. The characters are almost entirely unbelievable, although most of them (except for Margot), make sense in terms of what seems to be the overall conception of the novel, as long as you accept that all the representatives of the state are villains. Margot makes absolutely no sense as anything but an endless plot device, even within these pages. This is a problem because everything that is set in motion in the story happens directly or indirectly through Margot.

The title and various reviews suggest the novel is a meditation on the role of guns in United States and Mexican society and the damage they cause, but that part failed for me. The decision to make gun running part of a surreal landscape peopled by carnivalesque characters is interesting from a fictional point of view, but it undercuts the reality of gun culture in the US: it’s banal and everyday and the omnipresence of gun culture is due to the extent to which ordinarily people support and reinforce it. The expansion of legal gun ownership and the possibility that anyone can have a gun is what makes gun culture so terrifying. I’m sure gun running plays a part and is responsible for problems in US and Mexican communities. But if you think about many of the senseless mass shootings of the past few years, they involved guns that were legally purchased. Making the gun story about unreal people takes us away from understanding that.

3 stars at Goodreads.

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley.

A Lucky Man cover

A collection of short stories about African-American men, New York City, and masculinity. I DNF’d this after the first two stories. They are very accomplished and Brinkley is obviously talented. But my ability to read the unrelieved male gaze is completely gone, as is my patience with women characters who exist only because the male characters need them to. I may be able to return at some other time, but right now? Nope.

Also, dog abuse. In the first story. Presumably meant to illuminate the characters, but no thank you. I got them without the cruelty.