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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

March Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

This 2007 debut novel by Italian-American author André Aciman is the heartbreaking love story between two beautifully complex and captivating characters in 1980’s Italian countryside. From the first-person, Elio, an Italian-American Jewish 17-year-old, details his six-week romance with Oliver, an American 24-year-old student, who is visiting to study under the tutelage of Elio’s father, a prominent anthropologist. Elio is a gifted pianist, avid reader, and intellectual young man, and Oliver an exceptional scholar, a published author, and burgeoning professor. What begins as an unsure friendship, one marked by uncertainty and, soon blossoms into a love that deeply binds the two young men, a romance that transcends time and space, forever.

The novel won the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in the category of gay fiction, and it’s easy to understand why. The novel is stunning, an absolutely beautiful, heart-wrenching roller coaster of emotion. The characters, not just Elio and Oliver but the plenteous others, are each so complex, so deeply human, whose personalities are at once both familiar and completely bewildering. And Aciman’s prose is virtuosic; from beautiful bucolic depictions, to the historic cobblestones of Rome, to the sparkling pools and natural springs, to impressive forms of architecture. I fell into the pages of this novel and was swept away with incredible force. It was absolutely fantastic, and there’s a sequel which I cannot wait to find up.

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This 2016 eleventh book by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard is the third installment in his Seasons Quartet. Interestingly, unlike the first two volumes, Spring strays in its form: it is not a collection of short essays on various random topics, but a chapter-less autobiographical account spanning the length of a single day, though somehow stretched to encompass everything from the quotidian details of his life–waking the kids, making breakfast, driving them to school, sojourning across the countryside with his newborn daughter, to whom the entire series to addressed–to his complicated marriage, a heartbreaking relationship tinged with psychological suspense and unpredictability. As with all of his work, the novel is an in-depth, intense, intimate snapshot of a man’s life, one that is mesmerizing and infinitely intriguing.

As always, Knausgaard’s writing captivates me; from the first lines, intimately addressed to a ‘you’ being his newborn daughter who before in the first two volumes was unborn, he seems to bridge the gulf between two different lives, his and the readers, somehow transcending the distance between words and reality. This one was much more enthralling than the previous, likely because it was an in-depth snapshot of his life; in this one, he’s not writing essays, he returning to his old My Struggle form, the prose that transforms life into text. From simple activities as making breakfast, to gardening, to dropping the kids off of school, it’s enthralling, hypnotic, soothing; and as he details the awful psychological devolution affecting his wife, and in turn his marriage, and family, it’s as if the pain, the complexities, the heartache seeps from the pages and into the reader. He writes with a painstaking honesty which captures the beautiful and the horrible, painting a portrait of life in a way that no other author can. This short one moved me and kept flipping the pages unwittingly.

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

This second novel by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo is a phantasmagoric ghost story and exemplum of surrealist literature. After his mother’s death, young Juan Preciado sojourns to the town of Comala to seek out his estranged father in order to claim his inheritance. Upon reaching the town, he immediately realizes that the town, while seemingly vacant, is home to the ghosts of hundreds of former inhabitants. Each encounter with a ghost sends the reader spiraling into the past, the dark history of the town, each tales riddled with heartache, pain, and death. And as Juan continues to search for his father, he falls deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of ghostly stories, an intricate web of interconnected histories, at the center of which sits his father Pedro Páramo.

The novel is a cult classic, very renown in the history of modern Spanish literature. Lauded by Borges and many others, the book even supposedly inspired Marquez to write his timeless tome 100 Years of Solitude, which seems fitting, as this novel is a phantasmagoric fever dream of surrealist, magical realism, and yet, so much more. The novel, on the surface, appears very simple: boy goes to town to find father; however, once you dive in, it quickly becomes incredibly complicated, difficult to follow at times, but all the while, absolutely captivating. Narration shifts between Juan in the first-person, and the ghosts in the third-person who detail the past; however, the chronology of the setting is something that remains somewhat ambiguous, and it isn’t until a major twist about halfway through the book that all the pieces fall into place. The book took years to writes, as Susan Sontag writes in the preface, but it was a book that had to be written, that had to exist to snowball the works that would come after. It is a masterpiece, a puzzle, and a book that I will return to many times again.

The Heroic Slave by Frederick Douglass

This 1852 novella by American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass is the tale of Madison Washington, a slave who, with the help of a white man named Mr. Listwell, is able to break from the bonds of slavery and eventually go on to lead a slave revolt. The novella is split into four sections, each chronologically set many years after the other. The first sections details Mr. Listwell’s first encounter with Madison Washington; the second recounts the night that after escaping, Washington arrives to Listwell’s house and he helps him travel to Canada; the third takes place a tavern in Petersburg, VA wherein Listwell, on business, encounters a recaptured Washington on route to a slave ship, and he gives him three files before they depart; the fourth part, a conversation between two white men, details the successful slave revolt that Washington led aboard the slave ship.

It is the Douglass’s only work of fiction originally written for a short story collection compiled by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. The story was inspired by true events: Madison Washington was a real man who, in 1841, led the largest and most successful slave rebellion in American history. Aboard the slave ship Creole, Washington with the help of twenty other slaves overthrew the captains and sailed from Virginia first to New Orleans, then to Nassau, Bahamas, where they docked and 135 slaves gained their freedom.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola

This 1954 second novel by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola is dreamlike surrealist story truly unlike anything I have ever read. The story opens with an unnamed seven-year-old narrator fleeing slave traders and taking refuge in the nearby forest which he quickly learns is the Bush of Ghosts. Each chapter thereon is a hellish episode in which the narrator falls deeper and deeper into the bush, confronting various different kinds of ghosts, some benevolent, some malicious, some who reward him, some who punish him and transform him into various animals and monsters and torture him relentlessly before he manages a way to escape and flee to the nearest where a whole new set of fearsome obstacles await him. This cycle repeats and repeats for twenty-four years, all the while the narrator is only trying to get home.

This novel was truly one of the strangest reads I’ve ever experienced; and yet it was completely enthralling and thrilling from beginning to end. It was assigned for one of my courses, and as I read, I found myself taking meticulous notes, marking each instance that puzzled me–of which there were plenteous–and which inspired question after question, which in turn spun a thread that weaved through a bizarre sequence of events, blurring together the edges of space and time. On the surface, the novel appears simple–a story of a boy’s journey from the real world into the ghosts’ and his attempt to get back; however, diving below the surface, there are innumerable holes to fall down, many of which challenge a reader’s understanding of reality and perception of the world. While I have my tribulations with it, the novel was easily one of the most memorable I’ve ever read.

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