Tag Archives: Dion Graham

The Circle by Dave Eggers

CircleThanks to Annie, her college roommate and best friend, Mae’s escaped from her stupefying utilities job in her “wretched” hometown and entered the Circle, an enviable high-tech company (think Google + Apple + steroids) where Annie is one of the “Gang of 40″-power wielders.

Mae begins in CE – Customer Experience – where every call is scored and anything less than 100 is followed up with inquiries about improvement. Those numbers control Circlers’ lives far beyond work: personal worth becomes measured in smiles, zings, posts, responses, and rankings. The Edenic campus subsumes you: it’s abuzz 24/7 with concerts by the famous, epic parties, workshops that can take you virtually anywhere, and even luxurious dorm rooms so you never have to leave.

Initially drawn away from the halcyon Circle walls – her father is ill, her parents are struggling with inadequate health insurance – Mae is gently chided for not being more involved in her new enCircled life. But Mae succumbs to the unrelenting pressure to participate, quickly moves up the Circle rankings, until her very words (coached as they are) are literally cast in steel writ large: “SECRETS ARE LIES,” “CARING IS SHARING,” “PRIVACY IS THEFT.” When she embraces a life of total “transparency,” she’s catapulted into an unimaginable reality of neverending performance.

As intriguing and timely a premise as Circle presents, Dave Eggers (the bad boy-genius who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and founded that legendary once-indie-now-almost-mainstream-literary-empire that is McSweeney’s) falters markedly here. Too much of Circle just doesn’t work [choose What is the What or Zeitoun instead]. Eggers’ doom-and-gloom-techno-warning-in-a-shiny-package is heavy-handed, clumsy, and incessantly whining. Less than a quarter through, we get the warning signs loud and clear, but must tediously wait for Mae to catch up (but will she?). Throwing in a hoodie-d object of lust feels merely desperate, and you can’t help but wonder why Mae is so blind to his not-very-mysterious identity. That obsession at least provides a modicum of distraction from her cringe-inducing encounters with former foster child Francis. And the whole subplot of ex-boyfriend Mercer (who creates light from discarded animal parts – go ahead and ponder that) as the sole voice of reason just might cause your rolling eyeballs serious damage.

Perhaps the most intriguing detail here is that if you choose to go aural, you might be surprised to learn that African American male actor, Dion Graham (who turns out to be the best part of all that is Circular), narrates this morality tale told from the point of view of a young, small-town, presumably white woman. Perhaps Graham’s casting is merely habit – Graham appears to be Eggers’ go-to narrator for all his titles – but his smooth voice underscores a visceral layer of creepazoid, interchangeable, lack of individuality. So much so that it might be the only reason not to lectio interruptus until the less than satisfying end.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Maybe it’s the craziness of the season, but I’ve really been appreciating short story collections. This latest title from Emma Donoghue – the author of the phenomenal Room – is an intriguingly composed compilation: Donoghue presents a story introduced with a specific city and year, then gives the ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ historical background that both explains and enhances her fictionalized narrative. Each is part of a centuries-old immigration journey, grouped together in three sections: “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and in the final “Afterword,” Donoghue – herself Irish-born, British PhDed, currently Canada-domiciled – explains “why, on and off, for the last decade and a half, I’ve been writing stories about travels to, within, and occasionally from the United States and Canada.” [If you choose the audible version, you'll get a full cast of effective narrators, but the best reward comes at the end when you get to hear Donoghue herself read the "Afterword" – that leftover lilt is just soooo inviting.]

Like Donoghue who has “gone stray, stepped off some invisible track [she] was meant to follow,” her characters begin in one place and are driven out, run away, move to, or search out somewhere else. In “Man and Boy,” two “self-made prodigies” are willing to accept “[w]hatever Barnum offers” – yes, as in P.T. – and prepare to sail from London in 1882 across the Atlantic toward waiting audiences. A young woman living in 1854 London in dire circumstances in “Onward” finds a surprising benefactor (I hope you’ll be as tickled as I was to learn his identity!) who offers the possibility of a reinvented life in the new world. In “Last Supper at Brown’s,” a slave and his missus flee 1864 Texas, leaving the master “facedown in the okra” (not my favorite veggie, either!).

In “Counting the Days,” plans for reunion between a waiting husband in Canada and his Irish wife and young children are tragically thwarted. A lawless woman of the Wild West captures a wayward prospector, and acting as her own “judge and jury,” decides to return him to his family with a few adventures along the way in “The Long Way Home.” In “The Gift,” a destitute new mother gives up her daughter in 1877 and spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her. The private lives of a 1639 Cape Cod community are transgressively revealed, then recanted in “The Lost Seed.” And, in my personal favorite, “Daddy’s Girl,” a young woman learns the true identity of her father only upon his death.

Harnessing her own searching spirit, Donoghue ventures through centuries and continents, across oceans and cultures, to present a unique collection of peripatetic characters, each ready to confront, challenge, or flee what life presents next. Be assured: Going rogue never read this good.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

10 Comments

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Canadian, Irish, Nonethnic-specific

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers

First things first: Let’s try to clear up some of the oxymoronic labels. Although this title is classified as a novel written by Dave Eggers (he of bad boy-genius fame for his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and, of course, the mini-empire that is McSweeney’s), it’s also got “Autobiography” in the title. Yes, Valentino Achak Deng is a real person. And all the proceeds from this book go to Deng’s eponymously-named foundation, established in 2006 to improve the lives of Sudanese in Sudan and elsewhere. Yes, it’s written by Eggers in first person, that is, in Deng’s voice. The book opens with an important preface, signed by Deng in 2006, in Atlanta: “This book is the soulful account of my life …” But he also explains, “… over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel … though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted within these pages.” [An expanded preface, written a year later by Deng, is available online here.]

Given some of the recent memorably-outed memoirs (James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces probably being the most high-profile, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea being the most devastating), perhaps Eggers wanted to be especially careful. His own Staggering Genius had some hiccups in spite of catapulting him into literary stardom: his sister Beth’s public comments about accuracy (and then her sort-of retraction, followed by her shocking, tragic suicide), and the fact that later editions added a lengthy pre-book of multiple sections including a preface that begins, “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, various purposes.” Which is all reason enough why this Autobiography gets classified as a novel; it even garnered a “fiction finalist” honor for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Awards. So we’re all clear now, right?

With the labels figured out, readers may well wish this was fiction, given the horrific nature of Deng’s experiences, and even more so the inhumanity as we humans prey upon one another, again and again and again.

“I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door,” the novel beings. There Deng finds an African American woman, asking to use his phone because her car broke down. His Good Samaritan trust will get him robbed, beaten, gagged, and bound for many hours. He’ll sit through a careless interview with the distracted police. He’ll be kept waiting for hours in an empty emergency room. He’ll walk the many miles to his early morning job at a health club where he will be lectured for getting into a fight by his boss. All during this ordeal, he will recount his wrenching life story in bits and pieces, speaking silently to the too-many uncaring strangers he encounters.

Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. He escaped widespread death and destruction in his small village in Sudan, spent 13 years wandering then surviving the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, and arrived in the U.S. as a refugee with virtually nothing. For most of his young life, Deng did not know the fate of his family. He watched his friends just sit down and die. He witnessed unspeakable violence. He experienced deprivation and suffering for which words cannot suffice. And yet in the midst of the neverending nightmares, he also recalls laughing with his friends, falling in love, being part of a caring makeshift family-of-circumstance, and is blessed with an especially nurturing bond with a Japanese aid worker in the Kenyan camp who keeps extending his African stay until he can see Deng safely on his way to the U.S. Even as he finally escapes, Deng’s new American life is hardly easy (crime and even murder doesn’t disappear), and yet he manages to hold on to hope … and, as always, survives.

“Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I would share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves,” Deng concludes. “This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity.” Readers: take note … that word again – humanity. Share the story, grab this book, reclaim humanity.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Memoir, African, African American

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Heads up for DC-area locals … mark your calendars: you can meet Jacqueline Woodson on November 9, 2010 at Fairfax County Government Center, Fairfax, Virginia! Click here for details! And now through October 31, 2010, a play version of Locomotion is up at the Kennedy Center (adapted by Woodson herself) … the run is just about over, so make your plans now!

Lonnie Collins Motion is Locomotion, named after the song his mother loved so much she had to bless him with it! He’s been forced to grow up far too early … four years ago at just 7 years old, he lost his parents in a tragic fire. After being shuffled through well-meaning church members and group homes, Lonnie and his younger sister Lili, 4 then, now 8, are forced to live separate lives, she with a new mother who puts her in pretty dresses, and he with loving but no-nonsense Miss Edna who’s already raised two older sons of her own.

Told in vibrant interlinked poems that pour out of Lonnie’s energetic young soul, Woodson creates a portrait of ‘an artist as a very young man’ in this 2003 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature. From unpredictable Eric with his voice like an angel, the New Boy with a name everyone refuses to use, beautiful LaTenya with her missing extra fingers, Miss Edna’s son Rodney who comes home from ‘upstate’ to call Lonnie ‘Little Brother,’ and tenacious Ms. Marcus who wins Teacher of the Year with her patient nurturing, Woodson balances Lonnie’s struggles over his haunted past and his uncertain future, with his joys of new relationships and poetic accomplishments. Lonnie longs for the day when he and Lili might be reunited … but for now, summer camp is just three weeks away when they can be together always, even for a short while …

Locomotion is a memorable and accessible way to introduce young readers to various poetic forms, from haiku to epistle to free verse. As Lonnie discovers the power of writing, so, too, can readers join in on his unforgettable, brave journey of a sometimes uncertain, brand new life.

Reader: Middle Grade

Published: 2002

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Audio, .Poetry, African American