Books mentioned in this post:
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Insert pithy phrase here about how the summer’s escaped while I was (mostly) busy with other things, because the summer’s escaped while I was (mostly) busy with other things. That’s what happens when you’re a contributing member of society, constrained by the necessity of full-time, gainful employment in order to live indoors and eat something you don’t also feed your cat. Life sneaks by when you’re not looking. Feels like yesterday I was buying patio furniture and flowers, tacking up patio lights and mixing margaritas. All of a sudden it’s getting dark at 7:30, temperatures are dipping into the high 60s at night, and a few leaves are already starting to change.
When the hell did that happen?
I can’t turn my back anymore without something running amok. How can I be expected to carry the lot of you, merely one woman as I am? We’re going to need to form committees. I don’t see any way around it. First call will be for volunteers. After that, a general election between candidates personally chosen by moi.
I tried laissez-faire, and look where that got us.
It’s been a hot summer, a thing I revile, at the same time acknowledging I also despise and dread winter. The greater Chicago metropolitan area offers great weather roughly three days a year. I spend the remaining 362 indoors, sucking in canned air like a freshly-charged Dyson. I am a delicate flower, suited to climate control. You know, like a rare orchid. Or dandelion.
I put the hor in horticulture.
I’ve been busy supporting the publishing industry while the rest of you were out gallumphing through state parks, eating meat on sticks and corn on cobs, watching fireworks and scratching mysterious rashes. That’s a really cute picture of you and your grumpy kids at Old Faithful, but shouldn’t you use this last unofficial weekend of summer to pitch a tent or roast something?
Pssst … The outdoorsy people are gone. It’s just us; I’ll close the blinds.
From the Booker Prize longlist: An Orchestra of Minorities
Of course I ordered a few of the Booker longlisted titles, but so far I’ve managed to read just one. When I say “just,” I mean just give him the damn prize.
The book’s that good. If any of the others can surpass it, I’ll be shocked.
“He had joined many others ….all who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, killed. With all these people , he’d come to share a common fate, they were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join the universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”– An Orchestra of Minorities
Narrated by the “chi,” or life force, of Nigerian chicken farmer Chinonoso, An Orchestra of Minorities begins and ends with a woman named Ndali facing down her own mortality. Catching her preparing to jump off a bridge at the beginning of the story, Chinonoso rushes to intervene.
Months later, stunned by the grace and beauty he’d understandably missed in the frenzy of their first meeting, he falls madly in love. Only, he’s a poor chicken farmer, Ndali a wealthy and well-educated young woman on her way to becoming a successful pharmacist.
Her parents are adamant: their daughter will not marry this man.
Together, Chinonoso and Ndali are halves of a whole. Raised in a house of privilege, Ndali throws herself into Chinonoso’s world as if she’d never known luxury. Still intent on earning her degree, she sees no reason they cannot be together. Still, Chinonoso’s pride is hurt. An intelligent man, he’d given up prospects for further education when he took over the farm from his ailing father.
Desperate to convince her disdainful family he’s capable of greater things, Chinonoso leaves his native Nigeria – and a bereft Ndali – for the promise of affordable education in Cyprus. Trusting a childhood friend to transfer tuition money to the university and secure housing, before Chinonoso arrives he realizes he’s been duped. A subsequent arrest for a crime he didn’t commit keeps him stuck in a Cyprus prison for years. By the time he arrives home, he’s no longer the man he was. His whole world is gone.
An Orchestra of Minorities lacerates the heart mercilessly. It’s about love and hope, betrayal and loss and revenge. Breathtaking.
Having less luck with Colson Whitehead’s latest, The Nickel Boys, I’m considering ditching it. It’s surprising and a bit saddening. With great faith in his well-earned reputation and the appealing premise, I curled up with it on a Friday evening expecting a rave review by Saturday. I set it aside past the halfway point, underwhelmed.
I reviewed his zombie apocalypse novel Zone One for BookBrowse back in 2011 and loved it. His 2016 blockbuster The Underground Railroad went stratospheric, winning the Pulitzer, NBA and Carnegie Medal for Excellence, even securing a place on the Man Booker longlist. All critical opinions and most reader reviews rave; it’s my sense it’s deserved.
Take out your calendars and note I said ‘I could be wrong about that’ on this date, because that doesn’t happen often.
But I don’t think so.
Holding off on TUR, I thought I’d pick it up after Nickel Boys inevitably blew me away, having myself a little Colson Whitehead binge. That would be called poor judgment, y’all. Nickel Boys is short, but manages to plod. Unforgivable in a new writer, from a seasoned one it’s far worse.
It’s obvious what happened: The Underground Railroad was SO big, SO unique and attention-grabbing the expectation of excellence was untenable. Turning out two stellar books within a couple of years is an unreasonable expectation. He had a great idea, but rushed the execution. In an attempt to keep hold of it and finish in the shortest amount of time, he played it safe. Way too safe, in prose lacking his familiar stylistic grace.
We love Colson Whitehead. He’s a fantastic writer, a quality human being, charismatic and badass as all hell. But The Nickel Boys is not a bravura follow-up.
Just to be sure, I’ll take a dip back into it. I don’t think it will change my mind, but I’m fond of him. I’d love to be wrong this time.
It was an excellent summer. The very best. My passport stayed in the drawer, and I didn’t stray further than a few hours away. For the first time in what feels like forever, that was more than fine.
In early July, my daughter married her partner. A Very Big Deal, in the form of a courthouse wedding. Thrilled for the both of them, even if it does make me a mother-in-law.
Oh dear god, I’m a mother-in-law.
I spent much of my available time getting to know the Well-Beloved. Partnering at mid-life is so different, it takes some getting used to. When you’re young, starting a relationship brings two worlds together. After marriage and kids and decades building a life, it’s more like two separate galaxies, around each of us the various solar systems of friends and family and life experience.
It can feel a bit overwhelming, but the alternative is having no separate lives, no interests and experiences of our own. That would be unsustainable. You don’t hit middle age with no track record. So you take it as it comes, enjoying the good and working through the bumps.
But that summer sure did fly, didn’t it?