Fall is finally here, and with it comes harvest time—and, coincidentally, my recommendations for you this go-around all have an agricultural tilt to them. Welcome back to Rebecca’s Book Recs.
Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
You may have heard of the hit TV adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel Queen Sugar—or maybe you haven’t; it’s something of an indie venture on the Oprah Winfrey Network, directed by Ava Duvernay. Both Baszile’s novel and Duvernay’s TV show follow the Bordelon family, siblings who inherit their father’s sugar plantation in southern Louisiana. The adaptation modernizes and twists the original story in many places—Charley, the widowed protagonist of the novel, becomes a modern Real Housewife of a big-name basketball star, who becomes entangled in a sexual assault scandal. The show has one more Bordelon sibling than in Baszile’s book, with the addition of True Blood’s Rutina Wesley playing Charley’s sister. Baby brother and parolee Ralph Angel appears in both as the Bordelon sibling with a heavy past. Despite the changes, both novel and show have the goal of capturing contemporary African-American culture and family life, and both use the backdrop of the sugarcane to call back to the long and storied history of that culture. Queen Sugar takes you month-by-month through the precious cane-growing schedule and shows the Bordelons’ attempts to raise a crop on their father’s land as they also try to mend their relationships with one another.
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
James Hannaham’s 2015 novel begins mid-scene, entering on a mad-dash drive out of Louisiana, with frantic protagonist Eddie at the wheel. Eddie has no hands. They’ve been severed, and the stumps are still bleeding. As the rest of the introductory chapter flashes through the next fifteen years of Eddie’s life, you experience a secondary revelation—it will take you the rest of the novel to learn just what Eddie is escaping from.
Hannaham’s novel deals largely with a true-to-life tragedy and phenomenon: modern farms and plantations that illegally recruit and hold hostage addicts to work as farm laborers, promising food, board, and a steady supply of drugs in exchange for unpaid labor. Eddie’s mother Darlene is one such addict. Hannaham’s captivating tale of mother and son is narrated by three figures: Eddie, dealing with his love for his mother and his resentment for the ways she’s let him down, Darlene, recounting the ways life’s turns and cruelties have brought her to her current state, and, surreally, the drug that has torn the two apart. Reminiscent of the way Marcus Zusak’s runaway hit The Book Thief was narrated by Death itself, one third of Hannaham’s experimental novel is narrated by a manipulative and sweet talking entity that calls itself “Scotty” and lives to take up all of Darlene’s love, life, and attention. The book has already received national praise as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
A book I’ve recommended before, Rosoff’s young adult (YA) dystopia How I Live Now lives on as one of my favorites, to the point that calling it a YA dystopia in the same vein as The Maze Runner or Divergent sounds almost disparaging. The novel is told through the perspective of Rosoff’s wry and very sure-of-herself Daisy, a brash New York teenager who is sent to live with her distant aunt and cousins on their farmstead in the English countryside. Daisy doesn’t make for a reliable narrator—to ask her, she was sent away to make room for her demonic stepmother and her new half-brother the Antichrist. However, with a little inference, it can be seen that she was really sent to try and deal with the self-destructive behaviors that even her strange cousins can pick up on immediately. But although the old English farm is idyllic and healing at first, the slim novel takes a sudden turn when World War III begins out of nowhere.
The book is filled with vague half-tellings and gauzy descriptions, all told through Daisy’s plain and sarcastic speech; the War itself, which becomes an increasingly oppressive force in their day-to-day lives, is never fully outlined. We are given only hints that Daisy’s cousins seem like something otherworldly—like mute Isaac who has a strangely powerful connection to animals, or Edmond who seems to know what you’re going to say before you say it. In such an abstract novel, one thing that remains concrete is the influence of the old farm: it serves as an Eden-like haven for Daisy and her cousins, flourishing as it shelters them from the outside world, though it can only work for so long to keep out the turmoil surrounding them.