This Week’s Hot Reads: March 11, 2013

From a journalist’s personal history with the racism of the American South to a diary of a Japanese girl that washes up on the shores of Canada.

The New Mind of the Southby Tracy Thompson

Looking for new hope in the land of the old Confederacy.

Tracy Thompson grew up in Georgia, and concluded that the simplest way to deal with the cognitive dissonance of being from the South was to “shove the whole thing into a mental drawer and get on with your life.” As a career journalist, though, it was only a matter of time until her need for deeper answers caught up with her. In The New Mind of the South, Thompson sets out to meet historian Carl Degler’s challenge: “No Southerner, so far as I know, has yet seen fit to write about the ‘two-ness’ of Southerners.” Thompson travels through 11 states of the old Confederacy on a mission to make sense of the South. Plumbing her own family history, she learns of a horrific lynching that took place just 20 miles from her great-grandparents’ residence and discovers that a direct ancestor was a Union sympathizer. Thompson’s casual anecdotes and observations unravel the South’s contradictory historical layers but also chart the impact of more recent economic and demographic shifts on the region. The New Mind of the South is a clear-eyed, deeply considered look at the evolution of a part of the country that, more than a century after the end of the Civil War, continues to remain something of a foreign entity to rest of the nation. And though Thompson is unsparing in her critical examination of the South’s history of racial discrimination and violence, she remains optimistic. “The twenty-first-century South promises to be the region where Americans of different races learn, at last, how to honestly discuss both the present and the past with each other,” she predicts. Her own honesty leads the way.

Honorby Elif Shafak

An honor killing ruptures an immigrant family in ’70s London.

Moments after twin sisters Pembe and Jamila are born in a Kurdish village, their mother falls into a 40-day silence. Why didn’t God give her a son? When she finally speaks, it’s to give her seventh and eighth daughters names: Destiny and Enough. When a young Turkish man named Adem arrives in their village, he falls in love with Jamila, but takes Pembe as his wife. In the early 1970s they move to London, where Pembe struggles to raise her stubborn daughter Esme and her two sons, strong-willed Iskander and sensitive Jonas. When Adem gambles away his wages and leaves his family for an exotic dancer, Pembe is forced to find work cleaning houses and cutting hair. Jamila, who stayed behind and became the spinster midwife of the village, learns of her sister’s hardships through her letters. Poverty and a fractured marriage, though, are small misfortunes compared to the misogyny and patriarchal oppression that dogs the twins their entire lives. “Men had honor,” the girls’ mother explains. “Women did not have honor. Instead, they had shame.” Shafak’s plot is marvelous and delicately layered, though tryingly histrionic too—the story relies heavily on coincidence and cliché. But as it climaxes in a horrific murder, it’s the intelligent and conflicted voices of Esme, Iskander, and Jonas that illuminate the novel’s central paradox: what is a family, and how is its honor upheld? Trapped between cultures, oblivious to the events that have shaped their parents’ lives, Pembe and Adem’s children fight to carve identities of their own, even as their family is collapsing before them. Though her writing has previously landed her in trouble with the authorities (for “insulting Turkishness”), Shafak’s vivid, multigenerational sagas and explorations of gender discrimination have won her a loyal following among Turkish readers. With its rich emotions and tangled cultures Honor is sure to win over American readers too.

Between Beast and Manby Monte Reel

How a forgotten explorer’s passion for gorillas changed history.

Before there was Jane Goodall, or even Tarzan and King Kong, the gorilla was a creature of mystery. The beast’s nomadic habits put it into only occasional contact with African villagers and next to no contact with Western missionaries and traders. So when Paul du Chaillu, the son of a French merchant, first laid eyes on a gorilla in 1856 on an expedition into the African wilderness, he was instantly mesmerized: “No one else, aside from a handful of native tribesmen, had ever seen this much.” In Between Man and Beast, Monte Reel charts du Chaillu’s singular role in introducing the gorilla to modern science, and recounts the hype, debate, and competition that surrounded its discovery. Du Chaillu’s expeditions came at a time when Darwin’s theory of evolution had just entered the scientific community. The gorilla seemed to provide startling physical evidence of man’s close connections to the animal kingdom, something few members of the scientific community were truly ready to contend with. Du Chaillu’s fortunes rose and fell around his discovery; by the end of his life, he was “perfectly tired of this Gorilla business,” he wrote to a friend, “and I intend to have nothing to do with the beast in the future.” True to his word, he quit gorillas in the last years of his life, and died in relative obscurity. But Beast and Man doesn’t let him get off so easily. Reel retraces his life and work with the spirit of curiosity and adventure that drove du Chaillu in the first place. What results is a celebration of accomplishments too far-reaching to be understood in their time.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A lonely Japanese teenager’s diary mysteriously washes up on a Canadian island.

It all starts with a bit of flotsam: a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes onto the shore of the Canadian island where novelist Ruth lives with her husband, Oliver. Inside, concealed within a worn edition of Proust, is a diary written in girlishly loopy purple script; in a few short pages, Ruth is transported to Tokyo where a brutally bullied 16-year-old year girl named Nao is running out of reasons to stay alive. Her jobless father has attempted suicide several times, so why shouldn’t she? The only person guarding Nao from self-destruction is her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun whose kōanlike text messages keep Nao going. The more Ruth reads, the more engrossed she becomes—especially as she begins to suspect that her fate and Nao’s are entwined. What’s still not so clear, though, is exactly how the diary made it halfway around the world in the first place. Ruth fears Nao and her family may have been victims of the 2011 tsunami. In A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki weaves together Nao’s adolescent yearnings with Ruth’s contemplative digressions, adding bits of Zen wisdom, as well as questions about agency, creativity, life, death, and human connections along the way. A Tale for the Time Being is a dreamy, spiritual investigation of how to gracefully meet the waves of time, which, in the end, come for us all.

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On the Ropes by James Vance and Dan E. Burr

A Depression-era orphan joins a rough-and-tumble traveling circus—and the fight for worker’s rights.

More than 20 years after the release of their award-winning graphic novel Kings in Disguise, James Vance and Dan Burr have returned with the sequel to the story of young Fred Bloch, a Depression-era orphan striking out on his own. On the Ropes opens in 1937; Fred, now 17, has landed a job as the assistant to a brooding escape artist named Gordon whose hit act involves him stepping into a noose and narrowly evading death. Gordon and Fred have more in common than they know, and little by little Vance and Burr cinematically link their back stories together. Fred, it turns out, has become deeply involved with the workers-rights movement; Gordon, meanwhile, has shared a chapter in his history with one particularly unsparing anti-union thug. As Gordon and Fred’s storylines slowly converge, Vance’s cool-headed narration and the dark contours and menacing shadows of Burr’s artwork lend a foreboding to every panel. The battles between corporations and labor organizers resemble those of union movements today, but this is no simple parable. On the Ropes conjures a land far darker and grittier than today’s America. The book’s ending hints at a new beginning; with any luck, it will be less than two more decades before the next installment of Fred’s story arrives.