Saturday, February 02, 2008

capsule book reviews

I recently read three amazing books, and astoundingly enough each of these accomplished works was a first novel.

"Fieldwork" by Mischa Berlinski (2007): a recent college graduate is at loose ends in Northern Thailand when he becomes obsessed with the story of a brilliant female anthropologist serving a life sentence in a Thai prison. This is one of the best books I've read in years: full of ideas, realistic characters (I love the way his missionaries talk in particular. A horrendous family argument sparked by one teenaged child's unauthorized viewing of "Star Wars" was brilliant), and atmosphere. It is mindboggling that something this perfect could be a first novel. Grade: A+.

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant (1997): I am probably the last middle-aged North American woman to get around to reading this beloved mainstay of Oprah's book club. My friend Kim I's copy sat around on my shelf for over a year before I cracked it open. Of course, like practically everyone, I loved it. "The Red Tent" is the retelling of the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah from the Old Testament/Torah. I loved the women's animistic rituals. My one complaint: Diamant didn't have a gift for dialogue. All of the characters spoke in the same voice. One could excuse that by saying that it was all supposed to be in the voice of Dinah retelling her life story, but still... Grade: A-.

"Them" by Nathan McCall (2007): the story of the gentrification of Atlanta's Fourth Ward, told by a middle-aged black loner who lives with his ex-con nephew in an old rented house. Barlowe hates white people and calls the cops when some white folks show up to look at the house next door. "They'd call the cops if I came into their neighborhood" was his reasoning. Little does he know that the white liberal wife finds this to be evidence of community looking out for one another, and it convinces her to buy this particular fixer-upper in a "rapidly-improving" neighborhood. What is the impact on an old, established neighborhood when suddenly white artists and young couples start buying up houses? The Fourth Ward residents have very different feelings about whether an espresso house with internet access is a welcome arrival that will be "good for the neighborhood"; the unemployed men who enjoy spending their days chatting don't feel welcome there.

"Them" gave me a lot to think about. My ex-husband and I were the only white people living in a particular largeish apartment building in the Western Addition back in 1987-88. Our block was best known for having been the place where the SLA held poor Patty Hearst captive in a closet (my own walk-in closet there was the best thing about the small, cockroach-infested apartment. I used to show it off to visitors and wisecrack, "Like the SLA, we took it for the closets"). We were part of the thin edge of the gentrification wedge. Back then, I was terrified to go anywhere alone in my neighborhood after dark. Now, in 2008, there are espresso bars, vegan restaurants, upscale cocktail bars, and expensive boutiques there. Reading "Them" has made me look at all this in a different way. I used to think this gentrification was all good; now I'm focusing a little more on the losses. In particular, the huge African-American church is gone, where we used to love to slouch by in our hipster all-black to see all the ladies' colorful Sunday hats and hear the singing. Where are those women and their hats now? The Chronicle reports that the black middle class is largely being driven out of San Francisco to the East Bay, and people like me have a hand in it. "Them" should be mandatory reading for all white liberals. Grade: A.

12 comments:

hokgardner said...

I didn't like Red Tent at all and couldn't manage to finish it. I kept sitting down to read it and finding something else to read instead.

hughman said...

i love this. now i can pretend to be "well read" at dinner parties and talk about something other than Project Runway.

Vodalus said...

Yeah, but I would argue that one is not yet middle-aged at 37. ^_~

Carol Ann said...

I haven't read The Red Tent either. I looked at it in the bookstore, and it just didn't appeal to me.

Anonymous said...

My book reviews

"The Little Train" by Lois Lenski is the story of a small engineer and his equally tiny conductor and fireman who drive a steam train across a cartoon landscape waving at farm boys watching for semaphores and eventually driving through a tunnel. My two-year-old loves it and insist we read it 5 or 6 times a day. It's alright. A little too much detail for me. And why must every train book, like every pornographic movie, CULMINATE with a plunge into a long dark tunnel. It's so cliche! For once, I'd like to see the tunnel at the start of the story or even no tunnel at all.

love bites said...

I love your book reviews. I'm constantly on the prowl to find new books to feed my head, and i've not read the first or last books (though i did read The Red Tent in like 2001).

By the way, the book review by anonymous was also wonderful. You have awesome commenters.

Silliyak said...

Anon, that's the first time I've heard someone wanting to go faster. Personally I think it's probably more productive to roam the countryside and get a feel for the topography before plunging into the tunnel. My better half would also like me to spend more time in the tunnel before I run out of steam, but watcha gonna do?

Epiphany said...

Thanks for the heads up on "Them." I saw a review of it on Salon, and thought it looked interesting. I'll pick it up.

Where did you live in the Western Addition? Around that time, I had just moved to Hayes and Fillmore. It was already colonized by young white hipsters, though there were still black folks in the neighborhood....

GodsKid said...

Just to add another vote on the positive side -- I read Red Tent a bit ago, not even knowing it was famous. I enjoyed it quite a bit!

the Drunken Housewife said...

Love Bites, you are so right. I love these commenters, each and every one of them. Even the haters, they have a role to play in the oh-so-precious world we have here.

Anonymous, do share more book reviews with us! Silliyak, I'm glad your train is on the tracks.

the Drunken Housewife said...

'Piph, I was on Golden Gate Ave. betw. Broderick & Baker. It was the SLA block; one of the most exciting things that happened while I lived there was that a movie about Patty H. was filmed there, and someone put film equipment on the hood of our building's super's Caddy unauthorizedly. That was the subject of discussion for a whole year. Oh, and also there was the big earthquake, and the super's golf trophy fell off the shelf and broke.

Silliyak said...

DH, It's hard to derail those miniature HO scale trains.