Provisional notes on the first three books I read this year

Because they were so different from each other, and because their blurbs on my book list got longer than usual, and because I’m still thinking about them.

The Lesser Blessed, by Richard van Camp. YA, though it was marketed as adult fiction. 1996. Larry, a Dogrib boy in a small town in the Northwest Territories, is trying to get through the year and cope with his traumatic past. He makes friends, or maybe frenemies, with the bad-boy new kid at school…who gets the girl Larry’s been worshiping from afar. Larry’s a mess of admiration and lust and jealousy. His mom is busy working and going to school, and the past is unspoken between them. Her boyfriend Jed is pretty great, but it’s unclear if it will all work out, no matter how much Larry wants him to stick around. It’s the 1980s, and life in town is mired in drink, drugs, bad sex, racism, poverty, violence– seriously, heavy metal music is the most reliable comfort. Beautiful writing in short sections with bursts of old memories and tribal stories mixed in. I thought the jacket copy’s “fresh, funny look at growing up Dogrib in the North” was off base… but there’s something that makes you see through the grime and teenage raunch and want to stick with this sweet storytelling kid.

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, by Ozge Samanci. Comics. 2015. Memoir of a childhood and youth in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. Ozge’s family is middle-class: she and her sister can go to good schools if they work hard, but their parents worry that they won’t have good lives unless they study engineering or medicine and get good jobs. Meanwhile, the fight over secularism in Turkey and the nation’s youth and political fragility are the background to everything. One page includes a photograph of Ozge’s stencil, which has shapes, rulers…and the profile of military hero Ataturk, because drawing him badly is not an option. Ozge tries to fit in and please her family, when really she’s a weird artistic kid who idolizes Jacques Cousteau. My only criticism is that the resolution at the end felt tacked-on.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso. Memoir. 2015. A woman who has kept an exhaustive diary for decades writes in small sections about contemplating stopping. Also about her experience of time and memory, and how it changed when she became a mother. Mostly, this book came across to me as unbelievably self-absorbed, but every now and then one of her sentences intrigued me. There’s also a note of “and then I became a mother, and understood time and the meaning of life!” and I can take only so much (not much) of that. Can’t help wondering if she would find it all so profound if she had four kids instead of one. I think I will forget this book almost immediately, but hope to remember at least these two things: 1. When she watched her baby playing with crib toys, she suddenly remembered her own toys and sensations from before she began talking, and 2. she writes her diary in the present tense.