In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag.
(Meanwhile longer works, like Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber and Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree, were left at home.)
Patricia and Fredrick McKissack’s Best Shot in the West tells the story of Nat Love, who was born into slavery in 1854 and became a renowned African-American cowboy.
The volume is arranged in a series of short tales, as though Nat Love has responded to a request to write his memoirs. In fact, his autobiography was published in 1907, The Life and Aventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’. But it wasn’t illustrated by Randy Duburke!
The illustrations are in pale, watery tones and predominantly black-white-grey at first, as the story begins in Denver, Colorado in 1902, where Nat is working as a railway porter.
But when he begins to consciously remember the experiences of his earlier days, dating to childhood on a plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee, his memories are often boldy and brashly tinted.
There are only a few panels on each page, affording plenty of room for background figures and shading to establish scenes and atmosphere, and frequently entire pages contain only a single illustration.
There is some dialogue but the information is largely shared in textboxes of narrative which summarize not only his personal experiences but also general information relevant to the life of a man employed as a cattle driver and roper.
“Shortly after I joined Gallinger’s outfit, we got an order to move 2,500 head of three-year-old-steers to Dodge City. It was the largest drive I’d ever been a part of. We left with 40 men and two months of provisions.”
A contemporary of Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid, there is a lot of talk of adventure and outlaw life, and most of the scenes explored in detail here are rooted in tension or conflict, which makes for engaging reading.
If John Wayne is the only cowboy you know, the McKissacks’ graphic book is an excellent reminder that life in the Old West was colour-filled indeed.
(And, if you’re looking to really shake up your ideas of Cowboys’N’Indians, Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water is a fantastic – and oh-so funny – place to start!)
Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel is a perfect candidate for several categories in this year’s BookRiot Reading Challenge.
It’s set in the Middle East, it features a transgender character, and it’s under 100 pages in length. (See challenge here.)
In an interview with al-Jazeera in 2004 (quoted in the introduction by W.M. Hutchins, who also translated the work from the Arabic), the author acknowledged that his novel had “shocked some readers with its frank portrayal of the behavior of homosexuals in the Arabian Gulf region but said that the novel’s theme is the effect of the petroleum age of a small community torn between two cultures”.
He speaks of depicting “a world heading for a collision, a world that many in the Gulf region have worked to conceal”.
He’s referring, Hutchins explains, not only to sexual “desire and a rebellion against dichotomous, patriarchal gender assignments, but also to popular culture, superstitions and magic”.
There are scenes in the novel which unfold in the mosque, but there are many others which take place outside, which have a strange disorienting sense of unfolding elsewhere, in an untethered place, which feels familiar but is removed from the everyday. (The book might also count in BookRiot’s challenge for one which considers religion.)
Majid Nur al-Din states that the structure is “deliberately disjointed to present the contemporary Arab experience in a portrait that reflects a self that is split between an image of the past and an image of the consumer-oriented present”.
When he becomes The Diesel, when he makes people dance and seemingly escape the confines of their less satisfying lives, simultaneously cloying and draining, he appears to contain and offer an irresistible alternative to joyless living.
Dr. Fatima Ahmad Khalifa explains that Thani Al-Suwaidi “personifies place and breathes his spirit into it so that place, time, history, and the character constitute a single whole that is agitated and alarmed by what happens”.
For me, this novella reads like poetry. At the sentence-level, there are some beautiful passages which often require rereading, and as W.M. Hutchins knows the text intimately, I suspect this is a reflection of the original narrative.
One has the sense of being removed from what is known, dangled from some aerial structure by the toes, one’s fingertips never quite brushing the surface of what’s unfolding on the page below. It’s not a comfortable feeling; rather, a curious one.
What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?