Recent Reading: Sheep, Goats, and Water Buffalo

I’ve been having good reading luck lately. Each of these books deserves a longer post, but short takes are all I’ve got in me.

Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis

If you loved/admired/were gut punched by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, check out this 2015 National Book Award poetry winner, which also takes as a central theme the cultural attitudes to and experience of living in black female bodies. If you found the unusual form of Rankine’s work off-putting, Lewis’ more conventional poetic structures might be easier to get on with. Not that these are easy poems. One of the things I’ve appreciated about my project of reading more poetry is the way poetry frustrates my drive to master the text and forces me to live with “not getting it.” That might be particularly appropriate with this collection. What would it mean for a white reader to “master” poems on this subject?

The book breaks into three parts: two sections of (often autobiographical, I think) lyrics bookend the long title poem, or suite of poems, which is assembled from “the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present.” Here are black women literally objectified, often as elements in household objects (a table leg, a vase). And here are reminders, too, of how living women were bought and sold as objects in slavery. But the way Lewis arranges and reworks her found phrases also insists on these women’s humanity and subjectivity. Another especially memorable poem for me was “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” which begins with a journey to India (in which the speaker is both American tourist with an “Orientalist tan” and fellow brown person mocking the departed colonizers) and ends a decade later, with the speaker embarking on a journey with her newborn son (leaving home? leaving a lover?). On the road down from a temple in India, the tourists are stopped at night by a herd of water buffalo, and wait with the herd’s nomadic owners while one gives birth. I loved how the poet here can be both an erudite traveler (Lewis has an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature) and a body, conceiving and feeding her child (“I give him a piece / of my body”), somehow akin to that buffalo mother, maybe. (I know I felt my own animality bearing, birthing, and breast-feeding infants, and Lewis made me empathize with that water bufflo, just as the men acting as her midwives do). There’s a great review in The New Yorker, much smarter than mine and with quotations that will give you a flavor of how wonderful this is. I would like to read it again one day.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon

It’s Britain in 1976, a summer of heat and drought. On “the Avenue,” in a suburban housing estate somewhere I can’t remember because I read this in a desultory fashion, Margaret Creasy disappears. 10-year-old Grace and her friend Tilly decide to find her, or rather to find God, whose job it is to make sure people don’t disappear. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is both funny and serious: its themes, as you might guess from the title and the basic plot summary, are belonging and exclusion, shame and secrets, what people hide in order to fit in.

As Grace and Tilly wander about interviewing the neighbors, the Avenue’s secrets slowly emerge. This is in part a mystery–not just the mystery of what happened to Mrs. Creasy, but also the mystery of what happened one night 9 years before, and just why Walter Bishop at No. 11 is the Avenue’s designated scapegoat. The story unfolds in a leisurely fashion, and sometimes I wished for a brisker mystery pace. It can feel too obvious (oh, an Indian family is moving in? gosh, will people see them as outsiders and say stupid racist things?). But it also touches its themes lightly, mostly letting the reader draw her own conclusions about how the herd mentality, and their own shame and fear of exclusion, can lead people to do awful things. Are British authors better at those lightish reads with surprising depth, or do I just not find the American versions?  The Guardian’s comparison to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels isn’t totally off the mark.

A Broken Vessel, by Kate Ross

I read this 2nd of Ross’ Regency-set Julian Kestrel mysteries with some Twitter friends. The twisty plot relies on some big coincidences, but Ross made me willing to buy them. The book revolves around a death in a reformatory for fallen women, and I found the most interesting aspect the different possible female lives it depicts. Sally, the sister of Kestrel’s servant Dipper, assists with the investigation. She makes her living on the streets, and despite the danger (warning–she is beaten by a client at the start of the book) she’s really the woman with the most freedom and control of her life (I’m tired of the word agency) in the whole book. There are victims of trafficking and women who choose the reformatory over the streets; there’s a fallen woman who decides reforming is her route to power; there’s a poor gentlewoman who ponders marrying for money. Ross’ exploration of their lives is thoughtful, and Sally is a wonderful character. I think I liked this more than the first book.

What I’m Reading and Listening to Now:

The Path to Power, by Robert Caro, read by Grover Gardner. I’m about 3/4 in to this 40+ hour behemoth, which is only the first volume in Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson (only about 120 hours to go to finish them all!). Did it “need” to be this long? No. But Caro makes the byways pay off with great storytelling and amazing research–he talks to everyone who knew Johnson. For example, Johnson helped bring electricity to the hill country of Texas in the 1930s. So what? Well, tears came to my eyes when the lights went on, because Caro had spent a couple of chapters showing me how long after urban Americans took electricity (and indoor plumbing, which requires it if you have a well) for granted, Texas farmers and their wives were still doing backbreaking labor using the methods of their ancestors, and had almost nothing to entertain them in their few leisure hours, in a golden age for film and radio. Caro is also excellent at showing the complexity of Johnson, who was an abusive, power-hungry manipulator who also did good things for people, even if almost by accident in his efforts to acquire power. Gardner is, as always, a wonderful narrator.

Deadly Engagement, by Lucinda Brant, read by Alex Wyndham. This Georgian-set (1763) mystery is a bit operatic for my taste (it seems like everyone has loved/betrayed/had sex with and/or assaulted everyone else and everyone has a dark secret). I don’t find the central characters as sympathetic as I think I’m supposed to. But it’s holding my attention and the twists and turns are intriguing. I like it, just don’t love it. Possibly it suffers from being listened to right after reading Ross’ book. (I’ve got about 3 hours to go).

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho. Just started this fantasy novel which I’ve been meaning to read for months. Like, bought the hard cover when it came out meaning to read. The TBR-only project is finally paying off.

The Pinecone, by Jenny Uglow. As the cover says, “the story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine–Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary.” Also just started. I’m hoping for something a bit like Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden, a portrait of a forgotten female artist. I enjoyed Uglow’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell.

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6 Responses to Recent Reading: Sheep, Goats, and Water Buffalo

  1. Sunita says:

    Both the Lewis and Cannon sound wonderful. The Cannon doesn’t seem to be available in the US right now but I’m definitely putting on my watch list.

    I didn’t enjoy the Ross as much as you did. The fridging and the general women-in-jeopardy motif is one I’m increasingly impatient with. Also, while I liked Sally a lot, I didn’t buy her relationship with Kestrel. Overall, I found Kestrel’s ability to navigate the high ton and the Sally/Dipper world unbelievable. I think I need to take a longer break before the next one.

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Sorcerer to the Crown. I have such mixed feelings about that book, even though I love Cho’s voice. I think maybe I just don’t enjoy pastiche as much as I used to.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is one of the benefits of living in Canada–sometimes British books are available here sooner than in the US. (Or maybe it’s just my favorite bookstore).

      I generally feel the way you do about women-in-jeopardy plots, but this one didn’t bother me as much, maybe because Sally plays a prominent role and is pretty resourceful. The rescue of Emily, though, was not a high point for me. I do agree about the Sally-Kestrel relationship–it’s really not very plausible or explained well. I just like Sally a lot. (That’s different from believing Kestrel would be so taken with her). I do find Kestrel a bit too perfect.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I loved Rankine’s Citizen. I will definitely give Lewis a try. I like what you said about poetry making you live with not “getting it.” It is very true! I like that aspect of it too, it keeps me unsettled, something I believe is good for me 🙂 I hope you are enjoying Sorcerer To the Crown. I thought it was lots of fun!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Sorcerer to the Crown is fun! I am really interested in her short stories that draw more on Malaysian sources.

      If you read the Lewis I hope you like it! I feel a bit evangelistic about it and am wondering how some of the poems might fit in a course syllabus one day.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I quit the first Kate Ross Julian Kestrel mystery at about 20% in (shortly after the body was found). Some aspects of it did intrigue me a little, but the setup seemed a little too much like a game of Clue.

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