There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
On the handsome cover jacket of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation it says ‘a novel’ but at just over 140 pages, Beasts is more of a novella. Whatever the classification, the book is Iweala’s debut effort. From the inner jacket, the reader is informed that Iweala, whose parents are Nigerian, was born in 1982 and went to Harvard, where he won numerous writing awards.Iweala’s impressive pedigree heightened my interest, and my expectations, when I dug in. Beasts of No Nation is that kind of book: you have to dig in, stiffen the upper lip, and brace yourself because the narrative is unrelenting. Set in an unnamed west African nation embroiled in civil war, the story is told by a young boy called Agu. Separated from his mother and sister, Agu witnesses the killing of his father as rebel fighters descend on his village. He is left for dead but is discovered by a rebel outfit, thus beginning a new life as an orphan and a conscript in the same loosely organized army that is responsible for the death of his family and fellow villagers. Thus also begins his life as a beast.The first thing one notices reading Beasts is the distinctive style in which it is written. Iweala crafts the narrative using the voice of Agu, English that is subtly Africanized, replete with quirks of tense and cadence: “One day one soldier from our group is jumping off tall rock because he is saying he is finding heaven in all of the tree. I am thinking that he was madding in the head.” The use of present tense throughout gives the narration an immediacy that heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the story. It took me all of about a page to get accustomed to this style, and I never sensed that the writing intruded on the story.Agu’s voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person, and this aspect of the narrative is essential to the success of the story. Agu describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words added power and the story more credibility. Agu is caught up in things which he does not understand, adult things like war, killing, and depravity, but we never feel that he is part of that world, even though he is forced to participate in it. The writing, while straightforward, is not devoid of lyricism: there is a richness to the descriptions, especially when Iweala tackles the points of the story that are most disturbing. In this passage, Agu is forced to kill for the first time:It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face. The enemy’s body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood… I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?The last line of the passage refers to the words of the Commandant, as he is called, the leader of the rebel militia group who gives Agu the fateful choice of kill or be killed. The Commandant says that killing is “like falling in love.” This character becomes the face of the insane brutality of the war, the personification of the forces that drive Agu and the rest of the “soldiers” to commit violent acts. Iweala does not let up for an instant in casting this perverse relationship: in addition to his psychological control, the Commandant exerts real physical control over Agu, not only forcing Agu to kill, but also to submit to his sexual appetites.It all adds up to a grim existence for Agu, and one to which the reader can quickly become desensitized. It is horrible to read about such a profound disintegration of society, where children must become warriors and killers of the innocent, and not feel a hopelessness knowing that the story has played out in real life many times before, in places like Sierra Leone and the Sudan. But while it is true that the characters and the narrative are drawn in very broad strokes, Iweala is able to save his book from becoming mere social commentary, something you might see on the U.N.’s required reading list but not on the bookshelf of your average book lover. Iweala accomplishes this by focusing the story not on the horrors of war, and the way in which the men and boys involved are made beastly, but on Agu’s inner struggle to maintain a sense of who he is and where he came from. Agu does not give himself over to the beast within; he maintains a sense of his own humanity even in the face of such senseless cruelty.In this context, Iweala’s decision to begin Beasts of No Nation with a quote from Une Saison en Enfer by Rimbaud is revealing. I admit, I had to brush up on the life of this great, tortured French writer of the 19th century, but I discovered that Rimbaud’s life in some ways paralleled that of Agu: orphaned in wartime, caught up in a rebel movement, but most importantly, a person who in his writing constantly struggled to reconcile his bad acts with an enduring sense of his own humanity (it’s no coincidence that the character in Beasts who ultimately assumes control of the rebel group and leads them away from the field of battle is called “Rambo”). In drawing this parallel, Iweala quietly demands that his story not be confined to Africa or the modern problem of child warriors there. It is his depiction of Agu’s psychological conflict, a theme as old as literature, that imbues Iweala’s work with literary clout beyond its modern subject matter, and gives shape and nuance to what otherwise would be little more than an exploration into the depths of human depravity.
I had a hell of a time picking my book of the month this time around. This happens every few months, and I’m always better off for the difficulty in choosing my favorite. One month I will go through four books and have a definitive favorite – a book that I’ll recommend to friends, etc. The next, however, I’ll manage to read three books that are not only better than the one I picked the month before, but are good enough to make my preliminary “best of the year” short list. It never fails – I’d have more balance in my life if I had read them a month apart, but it never happens that way.This month my choice was between Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), Hard Laughter (Anne Lamott), and Other Electricities (Ander Monson). Hard Laughter was good – better than I had expected it would be – but it was the easiest one to leave off. Many months it would have been my favorite (I’m a sucker for books that are 80% conversation) but this month it had too much to compete against.Foer and Monson fought it out in my mind until I realized something – I’ve already picked Foer as a Book of the Month – my first one, for The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. So, by process of elimination, Ander Monson won the right to have his book selected.I first heard of Ander Monson through the LitBlog Co-Op’s “Read These Books or Die” Winter 2005/6 campaign and was extremely interested in its use of indexes. I was intrigued enough to request it from our local library, and to my surprise they purchased a copy and put my name at the top of the list.Mr. Monson, you can send me a thank you anytime.Really, Other Electricities is like no other book I’ve ever read. It’s not quite a novel, but it’s also not quite a short story collection. It’s somewhere in between – a group of essays and short stories that all interplay with each other; all create another piece of a grand novel. It’s a series that is bound by one theme – the lives of a small town shortly before and shortly after the death of a girl. Her accident – she and her prom date were drowned in a frozen lake after they attempted to drive on it – binds every character together to the point where each story, regardless of the protagonist, is ultimately connected.The resemblances to Fargo and Twin Peaks are evident. And while Other Electricities may not have been inspired by Laura Palmer and Marge Gunderson, there are a lot of similarities in their worlds. In fact, the episodic nature of Monson’s overall story cries out for the comparisons. Much like Twin Peaks was a collection of odd characters whose lives intertwined; each of these stories overlaps and peeks into the life of this town in the years leading up to and following the death. The setting is Coen Brothers, but the town could have been created by David Lynch.Don’t think that this is a simple knock-off, though. Monson creates a complex town that’s filled with failed dreams and eccentric people – the group of bored and rutted kids that nearly always drinks too much, gets themselves stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, and commits murder. It’s cold, and the town has adapted to it. There’s mystery in the air, not to mention a vast array of disappointment.The variety in the style and length of each story in Other Electricities helps create a mosaic of voices and lifestyles; each character brings a new revelation about their small town, about death, and about growing up as a teenager in the middle of domestic tundra. Everyone gets their say.The layout of the book is wonderful. Monson charts out every character and connects each in a web, then gives an explanation of the themes and characters – both artistically and satirically. An index not only helps reference common ideas but also gives a little insight into the relationship between Liz, the drowned girl, and her prom date – a relationship that isn’t mentioned directly. You can cross reference to your heart’s content.It’s amazing to think of these stories on their own – they’re all very good, but as a whole there are ideas and themes that aren’t even mentioned; are simply implied by the connections between stories. I’ve never felt so cold, and I’ve never desired to go wandering through a small town, around a lake, and into the city center during a vicious snowstorm as much as I did after reading Other Electricities.Well, it’s snowing outside. I guess I could start now.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar.