Work Like Any Other – on the Man Booker Longlist

9781501112492_p0_v3_s192x300    Virginia Reeves delivers a “scared straight” message in her Man Booker long listed tale of a man sent to prison in Alabama in the 1920s – Work Like Any Other.  With vivid realistic descriptions of Roscoe T. Martin’s harrowing prison life and the toll he pays for rewiring electricity into his farmhouse, Reeves spares no mercy on the reader.

Martin, an electrician by trade, who enjoys reading about Faraday’s principles of electromagnetic conduction, resentfully leaves his job to live on his wife’s farm when his father-in-law dies. His solution to the farm’s decline is to siphon electricity from the mainline onto the farm, and his initial efforts are successful until a company man dies from checking a live line on his property.  Suddenly, he is in prison serving ten to twenty years, and his accomplice, Wilson, the Black farmhand who has worked the land for years, is consigned to working the mines.

Reeves cleverly maintains the suspense by alternating chapters from Roscoe’s prison experience to life on the farm.  His wife, Marie, bereft from not being able to have more children after her difficult delivery of their son Gerald, blames Roscoe for everything and refuses any communication with him.  She is not present at the trial; she does not answer his letters; she refuses to allow their son to visit him in prison.  Her cold anger seeps through the narrative when Roscoe imagines her damning him to death in prison.  Later, her vengeful attitude threatens to destroy Roscoe’s future.

Reeves uses electricity as the conductor of Roscoe’s dreams of a better life.  He is forced to reinvent himself in prison as he works in the dairy, in the prison library, and finally with the dogs chasing down escapees, yet he defines himself as an electrician, even offering to wire the new electric chair built for executions- an offer the parole board does not appreciate.  He suffers beatings, near death stabbings, cruel torture, yet he connects with a few other inmates and Taylor, the guard who recruits him to work with dogs.  Amazingly, he survives.

But Reeves has more to say, and she continues in her Part Two to examine life after prison.  Roscoe faces an uncertain future with the years he has lost and the toll on his body, yet he longs to see his wife and his son.  Reeves offers a realistic and redemptive ending but not until she scares the reader one more time with possibilities.

Work Like Any Other is a powerful story full of caution, revenge, and forgiveness, and with a glimpse into a time when electricity began to change everything.







9781101947135_p0_v5_s192x300   Yaa Gyasi follows hardship and unthinkable misery in her novel Homegoing, a family saga of two African sisters – one married a slave trader, the other becomes a slave. Through generations of the two families, Gyasi tells the story of how slave trading became a lucrative business not only for the British and Americans but also for some African tribes, who captured and sold their own people – and the emotional damage of treating humans like commodites through generations of the two sisters’ descendants in both Africa and America.

Effia and Esi have the same mother, Maame, but were born into two different tribes in eighteenth century Ghana. For an enormous price, Effia, the Beautiful, is married off to James, the resident white slave trader who lives in the Castle, the notorious site of the dungeons, enslaving captured Africans in inhumane and horrific conditions. Effia lives in the upper floors in a European style mansion of comfort and luxury. Unknown to her, her half-sister, Esi lies below as a slave in the disease-ridden festering dungeon. Ironically, in trying to help a young slave water carrier in her village, Esi sent the message triggering her own capture from a neighboring tribe.

The chapters alternate, inscribing the names in the chapters; the family tree outlined in the front of the book helps to keep the progeny clear, as Effia and Esi’s descendants tell the tale and the history of both Africa and America unfolds. Effia’s son, Quey, is sent to England to be educated, but returns to the African Bush to reluctantly take up his father’s business. Ness, Esi’s daughter, born into the squalor of the slaves, is shipped to America to continue her life as a cotton picker on a plantation. She endures a life of immutable hardship and whippings – “her scarred skin was like another body in and of itself, shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arms hanging around her neck.”

As the story continues through the years, more lives appear, some quietly heroic – Two Shovel H who helped a white co-worker in a coal mine and then had his favor repaid when his arms went numb; others fall into drug addiction in the slums of Harlem. Throughout, the theme of historical suppression prevails, connecting lives to their legacy.

In the twentieth century, Yaw, a descendant of Effia asks his class of African teenagers the question Gyasi has posed throughout the book:

“This is the problem with history…We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story…you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Scarred by a fire accidentally set by his mother when he was only a baby, Yaw has been told “you could not inherit a scar {yet} he no longer knew if he believed this was true.” Throughout her story, Gyasi explores the ongoing scars left by the heritage of Effia and Esi – invisible scars on the souls of their descendants.

A powerful and ambitious book; Gyasi’s story ends with Marjorie (from Effia) and Marcus (from Esi) connecting, with continents and races mixing. Her message is haunting and important; Homegoing is a great selection for a book discussion.

Was Atticus Finch Really Not Gregory Peck?

9780446310789_p0_v6_s192x300Like many who grew up analyzing To Kill A mockingbird in English class, and mesmerized by the9780062409850_p0_v9_s118x184 famous movie with Gregory Peck, my impressions of Atticus Finch had him as a tolerant man who was also the icon for fairness and justice in a disparate legal system.  Nelle Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set A Watchman, attracted my interest when it was first discovered, but I had not thought much about it until I read the article this morning in the New York Times – Amid Shock, Readers Also find Reality in Bigoted Atticus Finch.

What?  Atticus Finch a bigot?  Could editing of a first draft from a first-time author really have changed the character so much to produce the revered lawyer in To Kill A Mockingbird?

By now, most readers have heard of Harper Lee’s rewrite, at the suggestion of her editor, transforming her original book to the now famous coming-of-age story with Scout and her father Atticus Finch.  In interviews, the eighty-eight year-old – now living back in her Alabama hometown, after years in New York City – claims she “did as she was told,” and rewrote the story into the classic known today as To Kill A Mockingbird.

I had not intended to read Go Set A Watchman.  Most first novels, especially first drafts, are often not as good as the author’s later work.  The initial controversy over the authorship stirred my interest, but I wondered if the spin was just another publicity ploy, meant to increase sales of the newly discovered book.  Oprah Winfrey recalled from her informal discussion with Lee (Oprah was never able to convince Lee to submit to an on air interview):

“One of the things that struck me: she {Lee} said, ‘If I had a dime for every book that was sold…” And I {Oprah} was thinking, “I hope you have more than a dime, because nobody expected this.’ “

Was this about the money?

Interestingly, Lee, who worked with her friend Truman Capote on research for In Cold Blood, has not written another book (that we know of) since the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was published. A self-described recluse, Lee has worked on another non-fiction book  about an Alabama serial killer, which had the working title “The Reverend” – maybe that book will be next to be “discovered” and published.

Megan Garber in her article – Harper Lee – The Sadness of a Sequel  – for the Atlantic said:

“All we will have, in the end, is a book, a thing that will raise as many questions as it answers. And, for better or for worse, that is probably just how Harper Lee—Nelle to the small collection of people who really know her—would prefer things.”

Guess I’ll read the book after all and decide for myself, but not soon – I am 258 on the library reserve list.

Do you plan to read Go Set A Watchman?  What do you think about it?

Canada by Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s Canada unravels like a long spaghetti Western.  Narrated by Dell Parsons, now a retired math teacher,  recalling the turning point in his life – when his parents robbed a bank when he was fifteen years old, the geography of Canada does not appear until the second half of the book.  By then, clearly, the plot is secondary.

As Dell describes the details of his mismatched parents and the strangeness of his twin sister, their lives after Dell’s father retires from the Air Force take on a surreal simplicity.  No one is satisfied: his mother yearns for a better life, preferably with another husband in another place; his father, the Alabama hustler, is always looking for easy street; his sister, Berner, in the throes of adolescent hormones, closes herself off.  Ford concentrates on the minutia of their lives, so that you readily “accept and understand” them.  Knowing the bank robbery has happened and the parents have been sent to jail – in the first page – you are still compelled to know more.

To avoid the juvenile authorities, Dell’s mother has arranged for her friend Mildred to drive the children to Saskatchewan, Canada to live with Mildred’s brother, Arthur Remlinger.  Berner runs away,  but Dell escapes to Canada;  the second half of the book creates a seemingly unrelated story to the first half with Dell trying to adjust to a new hard life, while trying to forget his old one.  Eventually, Arthur, a fugitive himself, involves Dell in a bigger crime than bank robbery.

Ford ends the narrative by reuniting Dell,  a sixty-five year old Canadian math teacher, with his dying sister, startlingly contrasting the effect of their childhood trauma on their lives.

You’ll need time and patience for this book.  Ford’s astute observations coined in tight phrases kept me reading to the anticlimactic ending:

“…life changing events can seem not what they are.”

“Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present.”

“Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was mad about it.”

“…you have a better chance in life – of surviving it – if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all…to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find…”

Inside Out and Back Again

Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts 
our lives will twist inside out…
The war is coming
closer to home.

A young girl escapes the war in Vietnam in Thanhha Lai’s National Book Award finalist Inside Out & Back Again.  Written in verse, Lai’s poetry follows the escape of a young Vietnamese girl, Hà, from her war-torn homeland to her new home in Alabama.

Lai offers poetic images of the conditions on the escape boat, the rescue by the Americans, the stopover in Guam – poignantly told by a little girl, who is at once angry, afraid, and hopeful as she waits with her family to be sponsored…

“We wait and wait,  but Mother says a possible widow, three boys, and a pouty girl make too huge a family by American standards.”

Hà struggles to acclimate to new surroundings in Alabama with a new language, reciting the rules as she learns verbs and endings – “so this is what dumb feels like” – nothing to the humiliation of being put on display at church by their sponsors.

“No one would believe me..but at times..I would choose..wartime in Saigon..over..peacetime in Alabama.”

Over a year, Hà and her mother become more assertive, determined to not just survive but to reclaim their lives.  Lai’s poetry gives a sharp, focused image to their struggle, as told by an angry fourth-grader, and clearly offers insight into the daily challenges of starting over.