Recent Reading: Resolution Check-In

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 RiotThat 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.

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12 Responses to Recent Reading: Resolution Check-In

  1. pamela1740 says:

    I haven’t been reading much this winter, not even keeping up with my favorite fiction/book blogs… but this morning I’m enjoying a nice wallow in book talk, and contemplating various options from my TBR shelf. I’ve got the Michelle Alexander book, which is the jumping-off point for a working group at my church, and I think I’d like to read it in combination with Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. I’ve been having conversations with my tweens too, about ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ and people lying down in the streets in Boston and Cambridge, and what happened to the people who get paid by the hour when the T wasn’t running and they couldn’t get to work because of the crippling snow…? — and all the other injustices and unfairnesses they’re beginning to notice and wonder about. It feels too facile to just offer blanket statements about un-level playing fields, so I’m focusing more on reading non-fiction about current public policy challenges.

    It’s so nice to catch up with what you’ve been reading and thinking about!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I read a really interesting review of that Putnam book in the NY Times–which had a lot of praise for it, but was frustrated by the fact that he doesn’t look at economic and political pressures that contribute to inequality (it ignores interest and power and focuses on empathy and civil institutions). I have been doing readings on education in my academic writing class, and focusing a lot on questions of equal access: who gets put on a track to college, who goes, who graduates, ways to change the inequality of those demographics.

      It’s an interesting discussion, because my students are in community college and many of the readings do apply to them in some ways, but they don’t necessarily see themselves there. Also, the Canadian picture is quite different from the US. Minorities, as a whole, are MORE likely to go to college, though there are groups for whom that is not true. The Canadian difference is always interesting when I talk to my own kids, too; they are dual citizens because of me, but they are very Canadian and often critical of the US. Fair enough, but their picture of it is based on a lot of prejudice. So there’s a lot of “Yes, but . . .” and “Well, not exactly . . .” in our discussions. I’ve been impressed by how both their schools and their online reading get them asking serious questions. But it also makes me despair sometimes about the world we’re passing on to them.

  2. Sunita says:

    Great to see that your resolutions are going well! I have picked up and put down the first MX Ahmad book several times, and Jayne and I have gone back and forth about it too. It sounds good but not great, but I do want to read one of them.

    I am more or less on track with my various reading challenges, so I guess my reading resolutions are going pretty well even though I didn’t call them that. I just wish I had more reading hours!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I found once THE CARETAKER (it is the first one, I think?) got going, it zipped right along. But it was a bit slow to start. I really did appreciate the way the characters differ from what you get in a standard political thriller–especially considering how often brown people = bad guys in those books. Even though I haven’t loved all the books I’ve read as part of this resolution, I’ve never been sorry I read them. They are all interesting and make some difference to the kinds of stories I’ve been reading.

  3. My cousin just recced me Knausgård. I asked a bunch of people (mostly non-genre readers) what was the last book that they read and couldn’t put down, and that was his. I don’t read enough non-fiction, so I’ve reserved that at the library. I also have The Unquiet Dead on hold, probably because of Rohan’s post. I’m an erratic mystery reader though, so we’ll see.

    I’ve been making a point of reading one genre book a month by an author of color. I have done so in the past but I wanted to quantify it a bit more. Of course, this month I’ve read exactly one book as my reading mojo is a bit shot, as is writing up my reactions to books. Though I’m hoping that is changing soon. (In my case going back to an author who’s consistently works for me helped—Patricia Briggs’s Mercyverse.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I haven’t had the best mojo either. I’ve been reading slowly and it feels more like “homework.” That often happens when the rest of life gets extra busy.

      What really made me want to try Knausgaard was this piece in Open Letters Monthly:
      http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/outrunning-the-constables/

      A lot of comments I’ve seen say he’s very boring in some ways but you still can’t put it down! How could I not be curious?

      • Interesting link! While buzz can be deceptive, at a certain critical mass there is _something_ going on. So I can get curious about what exactly has attracted that kind of attention. Not always. But I did read, say, Dragon Tattoo and Book of Negroes (Canadian critical mass), and those were rewarding reads.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I agree about the critical mass–whether or not it’s something I personally respond to, it usually means there’s something that makes the book interesting to read. “Canadian critical mass” made me laugh. Not as heavy as other kinds! (Because there’s a smaller population, of course). Or does it have to be heavier to overcome the “just fulfilling my CanCon obligation” resistance?

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    Oh, you read such wonderfully diverse books.

    I’m always conscious in books when they try very hard, very self-consciously to bring in the minority-ness of a character, the differentness of them to the foreground. Not every aspect of a person’s identity affects day-to-day thinking and sometimes not even in the same situation twice. As with every person, a minority person is not always thinking about his issues or the different facets that make up her character. They react from a gut instinct that is informed by all aspects of their personality, even the ones common across cultures.

    So I always look for people from a minority culture writing about their culture. Feels more authentic to me. But even there, a South-Asian-Canadian-Muslim author may have unconsciously absorbed the patriarchic-Caucasian-Christian viewpoint to the point that that they are unable to relate unconsciously, instinctively to their own culture.

    Well, that was quite a ramble over something I’ve been thinking about lately but haven’t quite come to cogent conclusions.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I could do a lot better on reading diversely, but I’m trying. One reason I appreciated Khan’s book is that it reflects the diversity I see in my own life. Although I have to say–everyone besides Khattak is white.

      It wasn’t so much that I wanted Khattak’s culture to be a bigger part of the story (his religion definitely is part of him, and it’s touched in thoughtful, subtle ways, including how it links him to the Bosnian immigrants even though they are culturally different as well). It’s that the relationship between Khattak and Rachel–handsome, sophisticated older boss; rough-edged working-class female subordinate; he’s affectionate but distant/mysterious with her, she idolizes him–is ALL over detective fiction, and I wanted to read something different. Really, that isn’t even about wanting his culture to make more difference, I guess, but that Khan uses a trope that didn’t feel fresh in any way. If I had to sum up how I feel about the book, it’s that she had potentially interesting characters and background, but she didn’t know how to bring the *genre* aspects of her story to life. The book felt kind of inert. I wondered if she’d have been better off with literary fiction.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        My comment on the Khan on Rohan’s blog was:
        “I wonder if the book tried to be too many things at once. It wants to be accurate in historical details and the horrors of the war, while attempting to be a mainstream novel in terms of character development with complex backstories, but wait, the plot’s a detective novel, too.”

        While I haven’t read the book, and now I want to, from Rohan’s review, it felt like the book was trying to be all things and the author had taken on more than she could handle. Rohan’s response to that was perhaps what was lacking was authorial skill.

        Ref: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/ausma-zehanat-khan-the-unquiet-dead

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I’d put it down to authorial skill in the sense that it felt like a debut book–uneven. There was some lovely descriptive writing, for instance, but at least for me it didn’t fit with the genre plot. And I felt the same disjunction with the characters: on the one hand, they were built on familiar genre tropes, on the other, they had these complex and different backstories, and instead of that breathing life into the trope, they didn’t seem convincing as people. I do think it is worth reading, though, like many imperfect debuts!

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