Books completed in February

1. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys by Gilbert King
2. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
3. Tinkers (audio book), by Paul Harding
4. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


1. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys by Gilbert King
Thurgood Marshall was a powerful attorney, who worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was probably best remembered for his involvement in landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education, as well as for being the first African American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Devil in the Grove tells the story of another court case Marshall worked on with many other members of the NAACP. In Groveland, Florida, in 1949, four young black men (known as the Groveland boys) are accused by a white woman of rape. Southern justice demands that the men be executed or lynched, regardless of whether or not they are innocent, and the local sheriff, deputies, prosecutor, and judge all whitewash the case making it impossible for the men to get a fair trail. The case unfolds over the course of several years, as the NAACP attempts to both defend and appeal the case for the men, resulting in death threats race riots, lynchings, torture, man hunts, bombings, and high speed chases.

This book does an excellent job, providing excellent historical detail, while also making it riveting in its portrayal of the very real threat and horror faced by people of color in the south. It is amazing to me the danger men like Thurgood Marshall and other African American lawyers and reporters faced when journeying south to assist or report this and other trials.

Reading this book, I can’t help but think of the present day and how — while things are quite different from what they were in terms of civil rights — in some ways, things are somewhat the same. As of 2008, the NAACP reported, “African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.” Not to mention the high number of unarmed black men who are shot each year, either by police or vigilantes (as with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and others). Among other issues that continue to persist — the kinds of problems and issues, which as a white person can be easy to ignore because we (I) don’t have to face them on a daily basis.

Devil in the Grove is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

2. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Meh, is about the only reaction I have to this book. From the beginning, the tone of the writing style didn’t work for me. I want to use the word “patronizing”; I don’t think that’s the right word, but something along those lines, basically the feeling of “I’m going to write a book for kids” instead of “I’m going to tell a great story”.

I read a blog post by a fellow writer talking about the difference between “situation” and “story”. A situation is when something happens to the character, and story is when the character takes action and makes things happen. For the most part, I’d say Dead End in Norvelt is a book of situations, as the boy Jack finds himself put into situations by others and pretty much does as he is told and only does things to provoke the movement of the story once at the beginning and a little bit at the end.

I got seriously bored about halfway through, and almost considered giving up. Things picked up and got more interesting toward the end and the story wrapped up in a fairly satisfactory manner, but I still didn’t love it.

All throughout I never felt that sense of risk, you know the cost of the character not talking action or making a bad decision or getting in trouble with his parents. Even when he’s grounded, he doesn’t seem very upset by it and does little to resist, and really, because he’s made friends with the arthritic old lady down the street, things are actually going swimmingly for him. Things happen, quirky and maybe darkly funny things, bunt none of them seem to matter on more than a superficial level.

And even though there are interesting, strange characters, I didn’t really care about any of them. I couldn’t find anyone to latch onto and love, anyone who I cared whether they lost their home or moved away from this poverty stricken town, or even if they died as some of the old folks did — at which point, the arthritic old lady would have Jack type out the obituary that would be quirky and darkly funny and spin off into a “this day in history” thing, which now that I think about it, really made light of the death as opposed to making it meaningful.

Another strange thing about this book is that the author is Jack Gantos and he grew up in Norvelt and he’s writing a story about a young boy named Jack Gantos growing up in a town called Norvelt. It’s not clear at all whether this book is in any way autobiographical, or if he just decided to name a character after himself for the hell of it, or what. It would be great if there was an author’s note or something to explain it, because I’m curious, but I’m not so driven as to try to sift through google to find out. *sigh*

Anyway, yeah, so, another book down.

3. Tinkers (audio book), by Paul Harding
I can accept this book, I suppose, as an extended prose poem. It has the dense imagery and dreamlike quality of a poem, scenes shifting between person, place, time with little or no transition. It’s a book more focused on it’s own poetic language than on plot, more on ideas than on people, with the people only really serving as a framework for philosophical exploration. The language is often beautiful, but is sometimes hard to follow. This is a book that’s requires analysis and deciphering, a book that requires extra mental work to get through and make sense of.

The story, such as it is, centers more or less on George, who is on his deathbed as an old man. Hallucinations begin to mix with flashes of his life and with long pondering on the nature of the universe and of life and death.

It also explores the life of his father, Howard, who had epilepsy and was a salesman and journeyed through the backwoods with a donkey and a cart to sell to the people who lived far from town. While the story is supposed to be mostly about George, it’s Howard that we really gain a greater understanding of, a greater sense of who he is as a person. But even that sense is emotionally distant due to the density of the language.

Tinkers is especially hard to follow on audio book, because the scenes switch fairly often and it’s not always clear that it moved on to a new section, at first, and there were times that because of this I mixed up whether the narrator was talking about George’s life or Howard’s (though maybe that’s partly the point, since their lives are paralleled).

While I like how the threads ultimately weaved together at the end, I’m not sure I love the book as a whole. I might read it again later on in print format, so that I can really revel in the language, like I do with poetry, because it’s the language and structure that really make the story worthwhile.

4. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

“I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.

“A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,” she also typed.

I also typed.

My name is India Morgan Phelps, though almost everyone I know calls me Imp. — from The Drowning Girl

I don’t even know how to describe this book properly. It is not really a horror story (even though it won the Bram Stoker Award), though it kind of is a ghost story, assuming you adjust you view on haunting and what that means. And in some ways, it is also a mermaid or siren story, as well as a werewolf story, but also it’s really not either of those. The main character, Imp, says that haunting are memes, that they are contagious and can spread rapidly, and I can believe this after reading The Drowning Girl, because I am still thinking about, still haunted by, this book.

Imp, a struggling schizophrenic, begins to write a memoir of sorts in an attempt to make sense of events, which may or may not contain the supernatural. She is a rather unreliable narrator, and yet, I found myself wanting to trust her memories, even as she herself doubted them. There are events that both happened and didn’t happen. A girl who is both a mermaid and wolf. At times Imp drifts from first person to talk about herself in third person, as though herself outside of herself is telling her to get on with the story, a story which meanders and loops and eventually circles around to come back and move forward.

It’s all brilliantly done with amazing skill. I don’t know many writers who could pull such a thing off and have it drift and jolt and restart and have it all come through to such a satisfactory conclusion. An amazing work, and now I’m going to have to seek out the rest of Kiernan’s books, because wow, what an experience.

As an aside, the book, The Drowning Girl describes a fictional painting that haunts the main character, Imp, a painting created by fictional Phillip George Saltonstall, which is also called “The Drowning Girl.” Real-life artist, Michael Zulli, has made a real-life painting of “The Drowning Girl,” as well as of the second painting by Saltonstall (discovered later in the book). For those interested, both paintings can be seen in this blog post. I love when stories becomes part of creative community and allow this sort of thing to happen.

5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This subtly woven together novel comprised of short stories has two characters at its core — aging punk rocker and music mogul, Bennie, and his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha, as well as an assortment of interconnected characters. The stories range in style and tone, with one surprising story told entirely as a PowerPoint presentation. Somehow, despite the vast differences in each of the stories, it still feels novel-ish, especially since each story maintains the thematic arc with a look at time’s effects, the way life continues as constant change.

I had mixed feelings about this book after I finished it. I enjoyed the writing for the most part and a part of me liked it, but I didn’t connect with it on an emotional level. I didn’t necessarily like or relate to any of the characters. Also, since I knew the stories were connected, it sometimes took me a while to figure out who the character is and how they are connected to previous characters, so that pulled me out of the story a bit at first.

A friend pointed to a podcast that explores the book (this link also includes a video of Egan discussing her PowerPoint chapter/story), which helped me gain a greater appreciation for how all the stories connected together. Egan’s writing is rather subtle and the interconnections of characters, time, and place were far greater than I expected. The book as a whole is rather intelligently put together, though for me it still lacks that emotional connection I hope for in a book. However, I’d be interested in reading this again, if only to see if I can catch more of the subtle interconnections within the story.