Discover your next favorite book by ear!
Join me for another peek into the Local Reading Treasure Trove series and discover four more books for your reading pile.
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. When you get an e-newsletter listing an upcoming reading of something called Blackass, you have to admit you’re curious. At least, I was curious. So I took my own ass down to the Politics and Prose and PEN/Faulkner Contemporary Fiction Reading Series at Busboys and Poets in March and was not disappointed.
In his newest novel, Nigerian author Barrett gives us the real sights, sounds, and smells of modern Lagos through a decidedly surreal lens: On the morning of an important job interview, our formerly black protagonist, Furo Wariboko, wakes up white.
Blackass has been compared to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and in the beginning it does pay homage to the previous work by launching straight into the aftermath of an unreal transformation. Furo, however, is not necessarily diminished by this change. In fact, Barrett forces us to confront the uncomfortable idea that this transformation is in many ways a helpful one, giving Furo access to personal and professional advancement he would not otherwise experience. Rather than barrage the reader with bitter indictments of inequality, however, Barrett draws us into an intriguing fable full of twists. About a third through the book, Barrett warns us to prepare for even more upheaval with a quote from Stanley Kunitz (The Layers): “I am not done with my changes.”
But I’ll let you find out for yourselves what happens in the end!
Bystanders by Tara Laskowski. On a balmy night in early July, I sat in the Colony Club’s back patio and waited for Laskowski to read from her newest collection, Bystanders. The Inner Loop had been wild enough to invite two Taras to read that night, Laskowski and myself (different pronunciations, endless confusion). Sometimes it can be difficult to pay attention to readers when you’re fretting over your own upcoming performance. But as soon as Laskowski started reading, my attention was 100 percent on her story “The Monitor.”
In it, Myra, a new mother, is shaken when her baby monitor blacks out one night, then blinks back on to reveal a nursery other than her own. Myra recognizes the name of the neighbors’ baby on the wall and thinks it’s just a crossed signal — until another little boy enters the nursery while the infant is asleep and stares unnervingly into the camera. Problem is, the neighbors don’t have a little boy. Night after night, the mysterious boy returns, and Myra’s sense of dread builds steadily as she runs out of plausible explanations.
Of course I had to buy the book, and I’m happy I did. Laskowski’s stories are like ghost stories for grownups, snapshots of unsettling relationships and revelations grouped around themes of appearance vs. reality. A wife receives what seem to be messages from a long-dead husband. A man’s deception, sneaking into a neighbor’s apartment during the day, spirals ever closer to disaster when his impulsive girlfriend gets involved and bends the game toward her own purposes. Throughout this intriguing collection, Laskowski puts her complex characters through challenges that cause them to question not only what they see, but the validity of their own reactions.
These next two books are reaching a bit into the way-back vault. I first heard about them in a reading at the Writer’s Center in October 2014, and they’ve stayed in my mind ever since:
Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center by Adele Levine, PT. In Run, Don’t Walk, Levine guides us through difficult territory with a comforting stride. From 2005 to 2011, she was a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, rehabilitating soldiers brought home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with increasingly severe injuries. Rather than making the disabled soldiers a source of pity and teary-eyed guilt, she shares with us their gallows humor and grit. To be sure, Levine doesn’t soft-pedal the severity of the injuries her clients have sustained (double, triple, and quadruple amputees become more common as the wars rage on), or the long days and grueling work she and her colleagues put in to help them come to terms with their new limbs and new lives.
Levine’s understated tone and self-deprecating humor invite the reader to connect with her and her clients on a human level, rather than worship them as saviors and martyrs. We grimace with her when soldiers have setbacks or engage in less-than-therapeutic behaviors. We also feel her gratitude when volunteers spring up without being asked to help carry wounded vets down to the pool when the elevator is broken — and stand waiting to carry them back up when they’re finished swimming. True to her trade, Levine takes readers gently by the hand and guides us through the trials and wonders of reality with a little more ease.
Fire on the Bayou by Howard Feinstein. Imagine you’re a freshly minted attorney in the 1970s, moving from law school in Washington, DC, to your brand-new job in Willacoochee, Georgia. Now imagine you’re Jewish, and the U.S. Post Office in your new town features a picture of Adolf Hitler hung in a prominent position on the wall. And now imagine your new position is litigating attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and your task: investigate civil-rights crimes in the Deep South.
Fire on the Bayou is a captivating personal account of Feinstein’s work with the DOJ enforcing racial equality the steamy, secretive South. He states at the outset that the book is not meant to be an impartial account, thus freeing himself to write candidly about his grinding efforts in the part of the U.S. most vehemently opposed to the landmark civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. Feinstein's writing style is clear and engaging, and his modesty and humor make the book a pleasurable learning experience.
Plus, he’s a pretty good musician. I walked out of the reading not only with a signed copy of the book, but a CD of “Hurricane Howie’s” down-home Mardi-Gras music. You never know what you’re going to encounter at a local reading, so keep on visiting and discovering!