Saturday, July 26, 2014

I need (to read) diverse books

I had just finished listening to Darius and Twig, the umpteenth book written by the prolific Walter Dean Myers, when I learned of his death. I felt somewhat conflicted as I've never much liked his books (and I've read enough of them to pass legitimate judgment), but I mourned the loss of someone who loved books and the power of books to change lives. He had very recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times that spurred an internet movement that hopefully will bring about the publication of more books about our country's children of color. (I'm cynical ... and therefore not expecting much.)

Darius and Twig is classic Myers -- a brief novel set in Harlem, featuring teenaged boys on the cusp of something. Darius is a budding writer, working on a short story that he hopes will get published in a prestigious undergraduate journal, improving his chances of getting into college. Twig is a talented runner, who might be able to get an athletic scholarship if he can just put off his uncle's insistence that he go to work in the family bodega. Both boys recognize that they need to get away from Harlem -- if only for a little while -- to get away from its pressures of poverty and its companion ... crime.

The story has a little forward movement, and there is a sort of climax when the boys make the choice to tell the police what they know about a shooting, but like most of Myers' work, it's really a study of character and setting. I read or listen to his books with the expectation of closure and there never really is. I go with the book, waiting ... and invariably feel disappointed with the way they just seem to peter out. In this way, Myers' novels resemble life, but the day-to-day doesn't often make a great story.

A new-to-me narrator, Brandon Gill, reads the novel. It's narrated in Darius' voice and Gill reads the story with a little too much actorly precision for a 16-year-old kid from the 'hood. But for the other teenaged characters, Gill demonstrates a nice feel for their hiphoppy rhythms and mouthy delivery. There are also two adult neighborhood "characters" who hang out at the local barbershop craggily dispensing advice and Gill gives each of them appropriate voices, full of humor and gruff wisdom. There are a few opportunities for accented English -- Spanish, Jamaican -- that Gill produces with skill.

Darius occasionally imagines himself inside the body of a peregrine falcon, named Fury, who enables him to view his broken world from a soaring and powerful distance. When these passages come, Gill reads with some supernatural gravitas that helps distinguish them from his regular narration. Ultimately, this narration felt like a mixed bag -- a bunch of bright spots countered by the oddly formal narrative voice in some not-very-interesting material.

I was glad to learn that Darius ended up at Amherst College, but soon he (and narrator Gill) will learn how to pronounce it correctly. (The 'h' is silent.)

Back to the diverse books situation. I think it might cut both ways. For my own reading pleasure (adult), I don't seek out books with characters of color (very often), but I think it's because I'm generally not interested in the plots and characters ... in the plots and characters I'm aware of ("urban" romance and a lot of violence). There are mysteries, historical fiction and less gritty contemporary fiction to read, and there's no doubt how much I enjoy listening to a narrator of color interpret a story. It's clear that Dion Graham helps me quite a lot in this area, but it might be time to branch out.

There must be an award to guide me: I read Darius and Twig because it was a 2014 award winner -- a Coretta Scott King Honor. Hello, librarians (is this an every-other-year-award?)!

[This quite magnificent photograph of a peregrine falcon was taken in Morro Bay, California by Kevin Cole and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Darius and Twig by Walter Dean Myers
Narrated by Brandon Gill
Recorded Books, 2013.  4:08

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