Apeirogon: A Novel
In his latest book, Colum McCann stretches the boundaries of the novel. First, his subjects are real, living people. Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, are fathers united by grief after each lost a daughter. Former combatants, they have opted for understanding the other as the only way to end the violence. Now practically brothers, they have been speaking together for years; Plough featured them in 2018.
The publishing world has been much occupied this year with questions about who has a right to tell whose story, with the outcry over American Dirt, a novel about migrants by a non-migrant. It appears Aramin and Elhanan don’t share those reservations about their own stories. Since McCann’s book is clearly fiction, they didn’t ask him to change anything.
The book consists of 1001 short chapters, a nod to the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights. These fragments gradually coalesce into the intertwined stories of the two men and their daughters, Abir and Smadar, though not chronologically, and with frequent asides about migratory birds, rubber bullets, and tightrope walkers that connect only tangentially. In Chapter 500 we hear from Aramin and Elhanan in their own words; after that the book counts back down to 1. Some may find this technique overwrought – many chapters are a mere sentence – but for this reader, at least, it was effective.
An apeirogon, we learn, is a geometric shape with an infinite number of sides. McCann gives us a sense of this: this conflict is not a black-and-white story with two sides, but one with as many perspectives as there are people who experience it.
How to Burn a Goat
Scott H. Moore
(Baylor University Press)
What happens when a philosophy professor decides he’s read enough Wendell Berry and it’s time to get some literal muck on his boots? Well, about what you’d expect. “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” says Cicero. Cicero was wrong, our hobby farmer learns soon enough: “You will also need friends. And rain. And perhaps a chain saw.”
With self-effacing candor, Moore recounts the time he badly underestimated what it would take to burn a 150-pound dead goat on the brush pile, which leads to musings about burnt offerings and true sacrifice. He finds he can’t mow the hay without worrying about slaying Robert Burns’s “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie” who is our “earth-born companion, an fellow-mortal.”
The juxtaposition of formal essays – including one first published by Plough on the virtues of college farms – with vignettes of encounters with skunks, rattlesnakes, and unruly steers can make for uneven reading. But for people who believe farmers can be philosophers and philosophers farmers, and especially for those who are considering putting their localist and agrarian ideals into practice, this book could be a gentle nudge in a positive direction.
The Broken Road
Peggy Wallace Kennedy
It’s an unlikely memoir in which the daughter of the segregationist politician George Wallace walks hand-in-hand with civil rights legend John Lewis down the streets of Selma, Alabama.
The “broken road” of the title derives from a disused track that led little Peggy and her mother back to their maternal home when George Wallace made their lives intolerable. He had just lost his first bid for the governor’s mansion, and he forsook his family for philandering and politicking. But Mama Lurleen Wallace was tough, too. She followed the broken road back to where Mr. Henry still farmed with a mule and where Mamaw’s door and arms were open. The move was also tactical. Mrs. Wallace knew that if family failed to draw her husband back, ambition would. In 1959, a divorce would spell the end of his hopes for the governorship.
Outdone by an overt racist in that first gubernatorial contest, Wallace came back next term, running on a platform of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” This time he won, and went on to play a notorious role as the nemesis of the civil rights movement.
Yet after an assassination attempt sidelined him in a wheelchair, Governor George Wallace turned not to bitterness but remorse. In 1979 he was wheeled down the aisle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s own Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery to ask for, and receive, forgiveness for his bigotry.
Eden Mine: A Novel
S. M. Hulse
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Jo and her brother Samuel are losing the house their great-grandfather built so the state of Montana can build a new highway. But although Samuel has often spouted extremist rhetoric, Jo is caught off guard when he bombs the district courthouse and becomes a domestic terrorist on the lam. She is the only one who can help the FBI locate him, but he is her only family and has sacrificed so much for her.
This emotional tension between love and justice, loyalty and guilt, compassion and self-pity drives Hulse’s second novel to its stunning and unpredictable finale. On the way, Jo meets pastor Asa Truth, whose little girl was critically injured in the bombing and lies in a coma. Thrown together by tragedy, they form an awkward relationship that grows into something resembling friendship.
Like Hulse’s debut, Black River, Eden Mine is tightly written, centered on these three complex characters. (The supporting cast – a frumpy small-town sheriff, a very good mule, and an FBI detective with unscuffed cowboy boots – are comically predictable.) Jo, Samuel, and Asa are haunted by their pasts and by inescapable questions: Can anyone really know the pain another carries and how it shapes him? When the traumatized snap, why should the innocent suffer? Why are some prayers for healing answered and others not? Why do some find faith through suffering and others lose it? This book deftly probes questions like these without answering them.