As the first quarter of the year draws near its end (no way!), it seems like a good moment to take stock of how my reading resolutions are going. Let’s not talk about my goal to blog more often, and write more in-depth posts about individual books. That will have to wait for my non-teaching time in summer.
Shared reading experiences? The TBR Challenge has been great so far, and I’ve loved the conversations when I post about a book lots of others have already read. There’s been a Twitter read-along here and there that looked fun, but they haven’t been at the right moment for me. A friend and I are talking about tackling Knausgård this summer and calling it Our Struggle. . . . I’ve also enjoyed wandering into reader byways all on my own, like Anthony Powell, and discovering that friends turned out to have been there before me.
This post is going to focus on my goal to read at least two books a month by authors of color. I didn’t expect this to be difficult in terms of finding books I wanted to read, and it hasn’t been; the goal was really to make sure I followed through more on that interest. Here’s how I’ve done so far:
- 1 Memoir
- 1 Non-fiction/Current Affairs
- 2 romance novellas
- 2 mysteries
I’ve got a couple of SFF books from the library waiting by my bedside. I am reading authors of color across all the genres I read, when previously that reading had been mostly concentrated in non-fiction and literary fiction.
The latest books I’ve read as part of this resolution:
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The mass incarceration of African American men, in particular, in the wake of the War on Drugs is a problem I knew in its outlines. This book gave me a much deeper understanding. It’s sometimes dry (I like a few more anecdotes/case studies in books of this kind to give a stronger narrative thread to follow) and repetitive in places but the thorough research and clear explanations made up for that. It was a good “sequel” to Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, which I read last year.
The best part of reading this, for me, was that last night my 12-year-old asked “Is it true that felons can’t get food stamps?” and I could give her an informed answer that led to a great conversation. I hadn’t realized how far her social-justice Tumblr reading went, and I was impressed.
A. X. Ahmad, The Caretaker (mystery/thriller)
I think I heard about this one on Book Riot. That site frustrates me sometimes–and not just for its occasional mis-steps on genre romance–but its writers read diversely, in every sense, and I’ve found some great books through them that I’d never heard of elsewhere. I love the posts where Rioters list what they’re reading right now. It’s like spying on strangers on the subway.
The hero of this book is a Sikh former officer in the Indian Army with a dark past (revealed slowly through flashbacks), now an illegal immigrant living on Martha’s Vineyard. Through his work as a caretaker at the estate of an (African-American) Senator, he gets caught up in political machinations. Ranjit Singh is an interesting character and I appreciated his struggle to be an honorable man in the way he understood, in a world that was in many ways hostile to him. His backstory makes him a fairly typical thriller hero in some ways, but his immigrant status and the menial work he’s doing now set him apart from the indestructible Bond type. The setting was well-drawn too.
The other characters, especially the women, were more cardboard types. And though the plot was well-paced, I found it predictable. I’m tired of “the government is so corrupt” plots; ordinary everyday government wrongness is bad enough (see Michelle Alexander) and I’m not entertained by operatic levels of betrayal and bad faith. So it was a mixed bag. I think someone who enjoys political thrillers more might like this better.
Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead (mystery)
This was a mixed bag too, and it had some similarities to the Ahmad book. Rohan wrote a full review of this one, and I mostly agree with her, though I liked it more. The premise is great: Rachel Getty (the primary POV character) and her boss, Esa Khattak, a South Asian-Canadian Muslim, work for a Toronto policing unit that handles “minority-sensitive cases” (those are the words of the blurb). Here, their investigation leads them to the Bosnian immigrant community and a case that ties back to the atrocities of the Bosnian War. As in Ahmad’s book, the flashback scenes are some of the most vivid and gripping–also very hard to read.
Like Rohan’s, my difficulty with the book was that the characters didn’t feel real. I think the problem was that a lot of the observations and descriptions didn’t seem plausible from the POV we were supposedly in. Rachel is working class, the daughter of a cop, a hockey player–I don’t mean that such a person couldn’t wax poetic about nature, but it seemed out of step with what we were told about her character. So where was all the lovely nature description coming from? I don’t really want that in a book of this kind. (Although arguably, it is meant to draw a deliberate contrast between the peace and–relative–safety of Toronto and the brutality of past events). Rachel and Khattak’s relationship–the suave detective and rough-edged subordinate and their complex feelings for each other–also felt familiar (Rohan invoked Barbara Havers) and I wanted his cultural background to make that relationship something other than mystery-novel standard.
Then we’re told things like “nothing about multiculturalism antagonized Rachel.” Not food, clothing, cultural customs. What? I’m antagonized by some customs of my own culture, and I think most people are. This didn’t make her seem like a convincing person either.
The mystery plot struck me as wildly improbable, too, and the contrast between its less believable elements (there’s this small private museum dedicated to Andalusia that was stuck in to make a thematic/political point but was super implausible) and the stark realism of the flashbacks was jarring. Finally, I don’t like mysteries where I feel I’ve been dropped into a middle book of a series, with lots of references to past events that never become completely clear. This seems to be a trend, and I get that it can seem realistic–the characters’ professional lives aren’t usually starting the day the first book does–but I find it frustrating and confusing. What exactly did happen with Kattak’s former partner? I never fully understood.
Still, I was interested enough to keep reading. If Khan writes another mystery, I’ll probably check it out to see if she’s grown as a writer. Because I wanted these characters to be fully plausible. These cops, from a variety of cultural backgrounds, policing a city that looks like them (though not in this book), are the cops of my own city.