Since the glossy magazines have recently come out with their summer “beach reading” list, this first installment of mine covers analogous territory: books that, while by no means escapist in their intent, offer readers an escape from their own worlds and an immersion into others. Writers are always discovering their characters (and themselves) in the combustible seams between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and readers are no different. You’ll notice in the capsule reviews below my proclivity for escaping into the combustible seams of Africa. I’ve included a bit about how each of these books ended up on my shelves—there’s always a story about how books end up on our radar and in our hands, isn’t there?
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain
Sometimes you just meet people. At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York last year, as I searched for a place to devour my bagel and coffee between panels, I ran into a pleasant, unassuming gentleman from Texas named Ben Fountain. We talked about our books and he told me to come by the booth where he would be signing his—which his publisher, amazingly, was giving away for free! I swung by, picked up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and got so hooked on the first story that I had to be nudged forward twice in the signing line. Fountain’s collection has been racking up awards (PEN/Hemingway, B&N Discover Great New Writers Series, Whiting Award) and the work is so good that I’m not even jealous. It sparkles on a sentence level, and Fountain never lets his characters off the hook easily. He makes them fight their way through every trap they set for themselves, and in doing so brings us to varied international locations ranging from Haiti to Cambodia. Even the lone American-based story—which tells of a military wife who must share her husband with the Haitian voodoo goddess he has ceremonially married—resonates with the swirling world beyond.
Whites, by Norman Rush
“You’ve got to read Norman Rush’s Mating,” a friend told me, though he refused to loan me his copy of the book. He showed it to me, though—a big, intimidating 500-ish pages that was far too thick for my mood at the time. Awhile later, I saw Rush’s Whites on sale for a dollar at a used bookstore and pounced on my opportunity to “date” Rush as an author before “Mating” him. Whites turned out to be a sock in the jaw of a book, 150 pages of humanity in its rawest state. Rush spent time as an ex-patriot in Africa, and published these stories in the 1980s to strong, well-deserved critical acclaim. The way colonialism’s legacy has played out in the intervening quarter-century has done nothing to dim the power of his stories, since he writes less about Africa and more of human beings in extremis: the tourists of “Near Pala” coming to grips with the true value of water in the desert or the desperate wife of a bureaucrat in “Instruments of Seduction.” After finishing it, I quickly dispensed with my prohibition against huge, door-stopper novels and picked up Mating—also set in Africa—which did not disappoint.
Apologies Forthcoming, by Xujun Eberlein
(Livingston Press, 2008 )
I met Xujun Eberlein by mail; she sent in a wonderful nonfiction piece to divide, the magazine I was running at the time at the University of Colorado, and we knew each other virtually until meeting (where else?) at an AWP Conference in Atlanta. This collection of short stories won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award from Livingston Press, and was published this May. My first sensation upon reading it was of getting completely lost in an alien culture—in this case, China during and after the Cultural Revolution, in which the majority of Eberlein’s stories take place. At first, when I saw its protagonists (primarily educated women “relocated” to rural areas) making decisions based on very un-American things like avoiding government scrutiny, I wanted to grab and shake them back to their senses. But by the end of the book I understood their lines of thinking and behavior, and this alone makes Apologies worth the read. At a time when the world has its eyes on China, Eberlein intimately examines the underbelly of cultural and personal change that—intentionally or not—led to the nation’s surge in world power. I often found myself feeling, as I read her collection, the sense of a national culture in tumult breathing its last before being paved over by a newer, shinier, but no less tumultuous one.
Disturbance-Loving Species, by Peter Chilson
(Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
I found out about Peter Chilson because I’ve been stalking him, sort of—in a literary sense. He won the fiction prize from Gulf Coast magazine, then I won it shortly thereafter; he won the Bakeless Prize for Disturbance-Loving Species, then I won it the next year. What’s up with that? Given the circumstances I had no choice but to read Species, predominantly about Americans in Africa but balanced out by stories of Africans transplanted to America. This book reads like a direct descendant of Whites in its closely-observed depiction of two complimentary cultures rubbing up against each other, and it updates the earlier book’s themes by virtue of coming out nearly two decades later. It’s amazing, reading the two collections side by side, how much the surface of the Africa/America relationship has changed without the core changing at all. The sentences throughout Species reflect the tension of its subject matter, and Chilson’s own experience in Africa (as a Peace Corps volunteer and a journalist) shines through. But my favorite pieces were those that took place in the US—especially “Toumani Ogun,” the closing story about a former West African warlord who ends up running a gas station in Portland, Oregon.
Looking for a Rain God, ed. Nadeźda Obradović
(Simon & Schuster, 1990)
Back in the days before children overtook our lives completely, my wife and I liked to take turns reading aloud in bed. The last book we read in that fashion—and perhaps the first one we’ll read when we pick up the habit again—is this tremendously varied collection of tales from sub-Saharan Africa. The collection includes some authors from the continent who have made names for themselves in America, including Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart) and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o (author of The River Between), but it also offers a taste of African authors whose names will be unfamiliar to readers here. My favorite was “Heart of a Judge” by Sierra Leone’s R. Sarif Easmon, which features a colonial judge and an ingenious talking rat. Although this title is out of print (and no longer fully contemporary), it is an excellent time capsule of African literature before the turn of the century—and before Wole Sonyika’s 1986 Nobel Prize started to bring African literature to a broader audience. If you can’t find this title in your library, Obradović also edited a similar anthology for Anchor books in 2002.
Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at www.stevenwingate.com.