The Week in Books #99

10/14 ✅

The week in booooooks. I’m motoring through this pile and have finished 23 books so far in 2022 already. February is over on Tuesday but I’m still going to push to finish this stack before heading back to the pile I started before this one. I also want to squeeze in Marlon James’ new book Night Witch, Spider King because I’ve been waiting somewhat impatiently for it and now it is here!

1. Reproduction by Ian Williams. This is a Scotia Giller prize winner from a few years ago that was a pretty unique read. The writing style is very experimental and there are a few different things going on; dialogue is not in quotations, large sections are presented as conversations that go back and forth quickly between two characters and you have to pay attention to who’s turn it is to speak because it doesn’t tell you, an entire section was written in very brief, titled chapters (very brief, several per page totalling over 200) and towards the end Edgar’s name was spelled in progressively weirder and weirder ways (Edggr all the way to EEEEE, representing the decline of his health?? I dunno). It was interesting, that’s for sure. I didn’t find the character development to be that in depth and it makes a few jumps forward in time that make it even harder to get to know the characters because they are aging so quickly. Army was a funny character as a kid but seemed to lose his shine as an adult. Felicia seemed to form her relationships throughout the book by whoever was the most convenient (literally by proximity, who is the male closest to her physically at the time) and didn’t seem to actually experience love at any point. One of the characters that was fairly big during the section where Army was a teen disappears in the later section and his death is barely noted which I found a bit bizarre. Overall the story held promise but the way it was told was a bit distracting.

Felicia and Edgar meet as their mothers are dying. Felicia, a teen from an island nation, and Edgar, the lazy heir of a wealthy German family, come together only because their mothers share a hospital room. When Felicia’s mother dies and Edgar’s “Mutter” does not, Felicia drops out of high school and takes a job as Mutter’s caregiver. While Felicia and Edgar don’t quite understand each other, and Felicia recognizes that Edgar is selfish, arrogant, and often unkind, they form a bond built on grief (and proximity) that results in the birth of a son Felicia calls Armistice. Or Army, for short.

Some years later, Felicia and Army (now 14) are living in the basement of a home owned by Oliver, a divorced man of Portuguese descent who has two kids–the teenaged Heather and the odd little Hendrix. Along with Felicia and Army, they form an unconventional family, except that Army wants to sleep with Heather, and Oliver wants to kill Army. Then Army’s fascination with his absent father–and his absent father’s money–begins to grow as odd gifts from Edgar begin to show up. And Felicia feels Edgar’s unwelcome shadow looming over them. A brutal assault, a mortal disease, a death, and a birth reshuffle this group of people again to form another version of the family.

Reproduction is a profoundly insightful exploration of the bizarre ways people become bonded that insists that family isn’t a matter of blood.

Penguin Randomhouse

2. Deacon King Kong by James McBride. This book was hilarious and extremely readable. I absolutely loved it.

In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and, in front of everybody, shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.

The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.

As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters—caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York—overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.

Bringing to these pages both his masterly storytelling skills and his abiding faith in humanity, James McBride has written a novel every bit as involving as The Good Lord Bird and as emotionally honest as The Color of Water. Told with insight and wit, Deacon King Kongdemonstrates that love and faith live in all of us.

Penguin Randomhouse

3. In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. I’m not sure where to start with this book, really, but I will say first that I didn’t love it. The story of Knot was interesting enough by the time I got to the end but I found the actual writing to be not very good. I considered giving up on it in the first few chapters but really try to finish every book I start so I hung in there and it improved a bit by the final chapters, though overall it lacked description and development in a lot of places. I didn’t get a good sense of what Knot was actually thinking and feeling, I just saw how she interacted with others which made her come across as pretty unpleasant. And similar to Reproduction, In West Mills does some major leapfrogging forward in time which left a lot out of the story for me. The characters age and have children of their own so quickly that I almost couldn’t follow who was who, and I definitely didn’t have time to form connections with any of them. This book has an endorsement from the author of The Great Believers (one of my favourite books) which is a tad mystifying because their writing styles could not be more different and I didn’t see how Rebecca Makkai could like this book so much? All that said the story itself was good it was just way under-developed in my opinion.

Let the people of West Mills say what they will about Azalea “Knot” Centre; they won’t keep her from what she loves best: cheap moonshine, nineteenth-century literature, and the company of men. And yet, when motherhood looms, Knot begins to learn that her freedom has come at a high price. Low on money, ostracized from her parents and cut off from her hometown, Knot turns to her neighbor, Otis Lee Loving, in search of some semblance of family and home.

Otis Lee is eager to help. A lifelong fixer, Otis Lee is determined to steer his friends and family away from decisions that will cause them heartache and ridicule. After his failed attempt to help his older sister, who lives a precarious life in the North, Otis Lee discovers a possible path to redemption in the chaos Knot brings to his doorstep. But while he’s busy trying to fix Knot’s life, Otis Lee finds himself powerless to repair the many troubles within his own family, as the long-buried secrets of his troubled past begin to come to light.

Spanning decades in a rural North Carolina town where a canal acts as the color line, In West Mills is a magnificent, big-hearted small-town story about family, friendship, storytelling, and the redemptive power of love.

Back to this stack shortly

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