“Mating” Is a Worthwhile Classic That Endures

I was excited the other night to see that The Paris Review is hosting a virtual book club for Norman Rush’s Mating. Here’s what they say about it:

Starting next Monday, March 16, we’re running a series of posts about Rush’s seminal 1991 novel, Mating. Twice a week, from start to finish, we’ll have writers examine a twenty-five-page installment of the book—not just to discuss the plot, but to offer the same spirit of reflection, debate, and restless inquiry that animates the novel itself. Whether you’re an avid fan of the book or completely new to it, we invite you to read along.

I read Mating about 5 years ago, and it completely captured my imagination. There’s a good chance I’ll read it again and follow along with The Paris Review. I managed to dig up a few thoughts I jotted down on that initial read. (They’re from June 2010 and are below.) Will be curious to see what changes for me the second time around. After all, as I’ve written about here before, each reread brings out different things for me.

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Norman Rush’s National Book Award winner Mating is, not surprisingly perhaps, about love — about finding someone you like, about that first burst of seemingly limitless euphoria, where you’d give up anything and everything to be with that person, about the act of getting to know someone and the natural, normal tempering of the euphoria, and about the reality that despite loving and knowing someone, there is always some part of them you can’t reach, always some part of them you can’t fully know. You can get close, but people surprise you again and again.

At its heart, this is what Mating is about. But it’s wrapped in this expansive text that covers so much ground it can be nearly overwhelming. The book is set in Africa in the 1980s. Our narrator is an unnamed American anthropology grad student who has become disconnected (both emotionally and academically) from her thesis and is trying to figure out her next steps.

Her voice is one I related to — she’s smart, funny, obsessive, self-critical but also proud. She’s also driven nearly nuts by the love she feels for the main male character, a sort of retiring star on the stage of theories about developing world economies. The book addresses economics, geo-politics, feminism, culture, and yes, the state of the human heart at the beginning, middle, and perhaps end of love.

There’s a lot going on here, but throughout it all, the narrator is there, guiding you through, at times frustrating you, at times making you realize you’d have done the same exact things she did. And her vocabulary? Well, I had to keep a dictionary handy, which hasn’t happened for me with a piece of fiction in quite some time. It doesn’t come off as trite or false, though. It’s believable she would talk and write that way.

This book has set on my shelves for years, made it through several moves, without being read, poor thing. I’m happy I finally was drawn to it and put the time in to appreciate it. Highly recommend it.

Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped” Haunts

To read Jesmyn Ward’s haunting memoir Men We Reaped is to step inside of her pain and grief. It’s impossible not to be affected by it, not to be left breathless, not to have to put the book down now and then for a spell while you recover.

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Ward won a National Book Award back in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones. Set over the twelve days leading up to and right after Hurricane Katrina, that book explored the lives and troubles of a poverty-stricken family living in a small town along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Men We Reaped, minus the hurricane, travels some of the same territory. Here, though, Ward shares the real-life stories of her family and friends as they grew up in and around DeLisle and Gulfport, Mississippi. The book’s driven by the deaths of five young black men Ward was close to. All five of them died, in different and violent ways, within a span of the four years between 2000-2004. Among them was Ward’s beloved younger brother, Joshua.

The book’s a heartbreaking exploration, looking for answers, for connections between the deaths, for some way to make sense out of the clearly senseless. Ward tells us right up front about the five deaths and lets us know she’ll be writing about them in turn, but even though we know what’s coming, it doesn’t make it any less painful. Her gifts as a writer and storyteller are on display with each page, every sentence, every time she makes you wince.

In addition to sharing the stories of these five young men with us, Ward also writes movingly about her childhood and what it was like to grow up poor and black on the Mississippi coast in the late 1970s and 1980s. We learn about her hard-working mother, determined to provide for her children, working as many jobs as one person could to make ends meet. And we hear about Ward’s father, who was a charming man and loved his kids, but also had a wandering eye. We learn, too, about Ward herself and the gift for language and love of reading she showed early in her life.

Ward’s ability to shift from the specific to the general and then back again is one of the most effective things about Men We Reaped. While we, as readers, properly understand it to be her story, it’s also quite clearly a broader one, one steeped in racism, poverty, lack of opportunities, and a lack of empathy. Her story is tragic, but it’s, sadly, not singular. Ward demonstrates this in searing detail, if you’re brave enough to face it.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/02/05/louann-lofton-unforgettable-mississippi-memoir-resonates/)