Sunday, September 21, 2008

More Truth in Fiction: City of Refuge

Here it is, the last sweet, sunny, slow weekend in summer, and we're still unnerved by last weekend's deluge. Although we are intimate with powerfully bad weather, Chicago is not a hurricane town. Yet last week, we were visited by extreme rain, and endured floods. Our suffering was minor compared to that of Galveston, Houston, and points south and east in the Caribbean, but it does make one stop and think about what we hold dear. Our homes as the holdfast of our identity, our sense of security, the fruits of hard work, and irreplacable artifacts. Every hurricane will remind us of Katrina, and I was reminded of a terrific new novel:

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza knows New Orleans, its flavors, aromas, and sounds. Its blues and jazz, pragmatism and magic, joi de vivre and defiance, amplitude and deprivation. And he understands the full tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Determined to vanquish reader complacency and blast the clich├ęs that sprout and spread, Piazza skillfully and astutely tells a harrowing two-track story.

SJ Williams is an African American carpenter and Vietnam vet who dearly loves his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, keeps his demons at bay through the discipline of hard work, and looks out for his sister and teenaged nephew. Craig Donaldson, an Anglo American magazine editor, is crazy about his adopted home in New Orleans, a passion no longer shared with his wife now that they have young children.

As the hurricane bears down on the city, everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are cruelly tested and exposed. SJ stays put and heroically helps others. Craig realizes that the needs of his family trump his own desires, and they join the exodus. In the pre-storm chapters, the conflicts and dreams of Piazza’s characters, men and women of bedrock goodness, essentially define home and reveal all the precious everyday wonders that Katrina disrupted and destroyed.

Then, in the scenes that make this such an extraordinary and unforgettable novel, Piazza dramatizes more devastatingly than any journalistic account the hurricane’s shocking aftermath, aligning the failure to protect, rescue, and respect the people of the Lower Ninth with the brutal indifference of war. By following his characters into the Katrina diaspora and back again, Piazza tells a towering epic tale of self, family, and place; terror and courage, criminality and altruism, a story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself.

We are forever seeking higher ground.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Truth, beauty, and hard facts in fiction, part 2

I've become a great admirer and beneficiary of contemporary Chinese literature. Anchee Min opened the door, and I've become a devoted reader of Ha Jin. This summer I was deeply moved by the beauty, daring, and sorrow of Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, in which a student shot in the head during the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square falls into a coma, but retains consciousness.

It's a mysterious, haunting, and meditative novel of the grim legacy of the surreally brutal Cultural Revolution. Courageous and creative, Ma Jian draws on Kafka and the Chinese epic The Book of Mountains and Seas in this powerfully allegorical masterwork, a compassionate and magnificent novel that exposes China’s catastrophic moral paralysis, and celebrates the inalienable freedom of the mind and spirit.

I'm also very high on Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo.
Aug. 2008. 176p. illus. Doubleday, hardcover, $22.95 (9780385525923). REVIEW. First published July, 2008 (Booklist):

Fenfang has fled the dreariness of her impoverished village in a never-changing land of sweet-potato fields and made the long journey to Beijing. There she copes with wretched little apartments, a violently angry lover, and the viciousness of nosy old neighbors who, resentful of her loveliness and independence, sic the police on her. Cockroaches swarm the walls, while on the street she confronts the great press of humanity, dense smog, corruption, and repression. But things are changing in Beijing, and Fenfang is smart, tough, and funny. She works as a film extra and gets a little break in the role “Female Number Three Hundred.” Writer and filmmaker Guo, whose A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) was a Orange Prize finalist, is a master of concision, filling each “fragment” of her alluring and admirable narrator’s life with irony, anguish, and insight. Once Fenfang recognizes that her loneliness and yearning for dignity and freedom are shared by all, she finds her voice and path to self-expression. A remarkably atmospheric, metaphoric, and piquant novel of personal and cultural metamorphosis. — Donna Seaman

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Truth, beauty, and hard facts in fiction

Time for a break, after last night's orgy of insults at the Republican convention. After that excessive display of the politics of greed and power. After that surreal scene in which the hatted and buttoned sign-bobbing audience chanted "Drill, baby, drill!" in some very weird trance of aggressive desire for a vanishing resource, a pep talk for raping the earth, a scene right out of Edward Abbey or Christopher Buckley of a world gone smacking mad, I find myself thinking of a beautiful, poetic, intelligent, earth-loving, compassionate, complex, and haunting novel by a writer of deep conscience and high imagination. Linda Hogan writes from a Native American perspective and with a fluent ecological understanding. She is also a mesmerizing storyteller. Leave the world of lies and camera-ready political theater in which a baby is used shamelessly as a prop--although I rather liked the youngest sister moistening her hand with spit to smooth down her baby brother's hair--and escape to Linda Hogan's seacoast world.

From Booklist, of course.

*Starred Review* People of the Whale.By Linda Hogan.2008. 320p. Norton, $24.95 (9780393064575).
REVIEW First published July, 2008 (Booklist).

“The ocean is a great being”; each whale is a planet, so much life does it sustain. These are truths Thomas and Ruth’s Northwest Pacific Coast tribe once held as self-evident. Sweethearts since childhood, they each inherited a working intimacy with the ocean, and their marriage is joyful until Thomas goes off to fight in Vietnam. Ruth is pregnant when he leaves, and when he doesn’t return, she devotes herself to their son, who possesses the old gift for communing with whales. Thomas reappears when his fellow Vietnam vets decide to break the ban on whale hunting, hoping to reclaim his legacy as the grandson of a legendary whale hunter. But the others are motivated by greed, and tribal traditions are grievously desecrated. Hogan, a poet, essayist, and quintessential econovelist (Power, 1998), dramatizes the interconnectivity of cultural extinction, environmental destruction, and war as she parallels Ruth’s courageous defense of the living world with Thomas’ suffering and secret life in Vietnam. She also links the near genocide of aboriginal peoples with the near extinction of marine life. Deeply ecological, original, and spellbinding, Hogan ascends to an even higher plane in this hauntingly beautiful novel of the hidden dimensions of life, and all that is now imperiled. —Donna Seaman