Teju Cole, Open City
Recorded Books, 2011

Reader: Kevin Mambo

It was fitting that this was my first audiobook of 2012; I was walking the streets of my own city, listening to this story, while the narrator, Julius, was walking the streets of New York City.

He is walking, the birds are migrating, Nadege is limping, his professor was imprisoned during WWII and is now suffering another kind of imprisonment. The story considers what is in motion, what possibilities uniquely exist in that state, the ways to move figuratively when one is literally immobile.

It is also about the power of words and actions, the impact of silence and inaction. It is about the ideas we have about the world, which are also constantly in motion.

When Julius is walking in Belgium, he wonders if others are there also to escape, to escape something done or something seen, but they are protected by silence, like the silences of Vermeer’s paintings.

While he is on the move, he encounters a number of people who impact his travels (physically and intellectually). Like Farook:

“I was a strange child you see. I used to miss classes so I could go elsewhere and read on my own. Taking classes never taught me anything. Everything interesting was in the books. It was books that made me aware of the variety of the world.”

Open City has a bookishness that reaches beyond single characters, however, referencing Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Butler’s Kindred, Jelloun’s writing (which Farook views as myth-making but not meaningfully connected to people’s real lives), Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Choukri’s For Bread Alone. 

Often these works consider the question of suffering, whether due to systemic injustice or personal losses, adding a thematic layer to the work, which states: “If you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer too.”

And this question of perspective (while one is moving, another is stationery but actually appears to be in motion) impacts every aspect of the novel.

Something that appears to be an act of devastation might actually be a misinterpretation of an act of resistance. When is a migration not an act of preservation, when is it an act of desperation, when is it an act of revolution?

Can writing come to stand in place for an ethical life, if you write well, will people forgive questionable ethics? Is writing well equal to living well? What makes for a good life?

There are so many things to ponder in Open City, so many approaches to the authentic that one can take.

“To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow was to be both original and reflection and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.” (last sentence of Chapter 16)

Clearly, Teju Cole is, as Julian is described, “…a close watcher of people and words”; I’m looking forward to his next work.

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones 
Recorded Books, 2011
Readers: Cherise Booth

Ward’s novel begins with epigraphs which offer the reader insight to the tone of the work that follows.

The first is from Deuteronomy, which evokes the sweeping theme of harsh laws and brutal punishments.

(The novel recounts a period of twelve days in the life of Esch, who lives with her brothers and her father in Bois Sauvages, Mississippi, the final days being engulfed by Hurricane Katrina.)

The next is from Gloria Fuertes, who writes “For though I’m small I know many things”, which is an overt reminder that perceived weakness can house great strength.

(Esch herself is only fourteen and although remarkably adult in some ways — particularly in terms of the kind of care she must provide her five-year-old brother Junior — possesses a striking vulnerability. And, even smaller than Esch, is China, her brother Skeetah’s pitbull, who also knows many things that a lot of dogs — and a lot of people — do not know.)

And, finally, from the Art of Storytelling, “Outcast”, there is this: “What you wanna be?” And she said, Alive.”

(Like Julius, in Open City, Esch is concerned with what it means to be alive. And she is concerned with staying that way. Despite the forces of detrition and destruction that the family members face, there is a determination, a hulking and enduring spirit that prevails throughout the narrative.)

At another time in my reading experience, I think I would have loved her use of language; the similes and metaphors are suitably rooted in the natural world and in the narrator’s perspective, but they did resonate as strongly for me as I would have liked. Perhaps I was simply too absorbed in the story, in Esch’s particular dilemma and in the relationship between Skeeter and China (arguably the heart of the novel) to attend to any other aspect of the narrative.

It is a powerful tale indeed. I think I will remember Esch for a long time.

Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods
Dreamscape Media, 2011
Reader: Dushko Petrovich

I have a copy of Helen DeWitt’s first novel here; I had the idea it was a quietly clever novel, musing on motherhood and on finding your place in the world.

I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do know that Lightning Rods is not at all that kind of story.

It is so NOT that kind of story that I spent the first hour listening to it with my mouth slightly agape. (This is not hyperbole…if it was summer, I’d’ve been catching flies. Okay, the flies are hyperbolic.)

All the better to allow the snorts and chortles escape. There I am, out in the kitchen by myself, listening and baking and cooking and washing up, with “Hah”s and “Tkk”s erupting spontaneously.

While I’m spooning out cupcake batter, Helen DeWitt is taking me out to sell Electrolux vacuums. And of course a salesman’s life is filled with plenty of comic-tragic potential.

While I’m carefully cleaning-but-not-soaping the cast-iron skillet, one of our household’s most treasured items, Dushko Petrovich has me craving a piece of pie like nobody’s business. (Joe ate a lot of pie; he did not sell many vacuums.)

[The way I see it is, if you’re bored by the details about my cast-iron skillet and cupcakes, you are not going to want to keep reading DeWitt’s novel either.]

Speaking of Petrovich, he sounded so booooored in the Audible reading sample that I nearly deleted the book from my cart as quickly as I’d added it, not realizing just how boring it is to try to sell vacuums and encyclopaedia sets. So now I understand and he is a terrific narrator in this role.

Apparently there was a fair bit of chatter about this book, but I missed it. So I was, quite frankly, shocked to find that it’s about what it’s about. Although, of course, as a satire, it’s not really about what it’s about, either.

And since we’re being frank, I’m not sure that I have ever really “gotten” satire until now. That is to say, I’ve studied Jonathan Swift and I’ve read George Saunders, and plenty in-between, and I understand what they’re up to, and I appreciate the skill and intent. Doesn’t that sound clinical? That’s how it has felt, too. Like a student, observing and analyzing, but never fully engaged.

But I actually had to pause Lightning Rods twice so that I could take more time to laugh.

I laughed out loud walking down the street while listening to it.

I baked and cooked more in a single weekend than I do in many weeks, just to have the excuse of spending more time alone with it in the kitchen.

(Yes, I’ve eaten a lot of cupcakes, though no pie: I’m no good with pastry.)

I think that’s what satire is supposed to do. (Well, not the baked goods, maybe, but the rest of it.)

I realize that I have only mentioned vacuums and pie, and those are random details that really have nothing to do with Lightning Rods, and certainly I don’t find either of those things shocking or amusing.

But if someone had told me what the book is actually about (or what it’s not really about), I’m not sure that I would have followed up. Not out of any objection, but because the details about the plot seem organic to the novel, and pulling out the specifics overlooks the overarching power of the work.

(If you want those details, you can find them in lots of places. Lots of readers apparently got so hung up on them that they missed the overarching themes entirely. Presumably these readers would have thought Swift was really talking about babies.)

I came to this novel with absolutely no expectations; I came out of it, grinning and shaking my head, and with ideas in my head that weren’t there before. It’s a delightful state. The kind that makes me feel grateful to be a reader.

How about you?
Have you read any of these?
Are you thinking about it?