Beautiful Children, Charles Bock’s fiction debut (which more or less everybody orgasmed in anticipation of) is available as a free, downloadable PDF courtesy Random House until Friday, February 29 — get it here!

It’s gimmicky, sure, and I don’t know what the publisher’s end game is (demonstrate that even netizens occasionally express demand for finer forms of the written word?), but I’ll be honest, I downloaded it. And I can’t wait to start reading it, if only to be able to put forth an informed opinion about this middle-aged wunderkind everyone’s talking about.

It’s mere happenstance that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day I am reading Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name, the fictional narrative of a slave in the eighteenth century. But it’s no surprise that I’m captivated by the absorbing story of Aminata Diallo, which Hill chronicles with a deft sensitivity I didn’t entirely expect from a middle-aged man.

The Times’ glowing review focuses on the power of language to undermine great social ills. But rather than being overtly political, the text strikes me as a testament to the importance of independent voices echoing in the night:

If I live long enough to finish this story, it will outlive me. Long after I have returned to the spirits of my ancestors, perhaps it will wait in the London Library. Sometimes I imagine the first reader to come upon my story. Could it be a girl? Perhaps a woman. A man. An Englishman. An African. One of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.

Much has been written on the place of witness and testimony in creating a case for change; what is so compelling about this book (and others like it) is that it asks for nothing directly, but rather allows the narrator’s voice to ring clear as a sounding bell, audible long after the the gong is initially struck.

A side note: Anyone have suggestions for similar narratives about non-African slaves? I’m particularly interested in reading something similar about the experience of indentured servants from India in the Caribbean. Looking into reading The Counting House (David Dabydeen), Maharani’s Misery (Verene A. Shepherd), The Last English Plantation (Jan Lo Shinebourne), or Bechu (Clem Seecharan). Tips or insight?

I just finished Dave Eggers’ latest, a fictionalized account of one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” Valentino Achak Deng.

(Aside: Does anyone want to go to a reading by Zadie Smith — with cameos by Vendela Vida and Maggie Gyllenhall — on Jan. 16? It’s a benefit for Eggers’ nonprofit, 826NYC, which offers writing support to kids and teens.)

And I loved it. For a lot of reasons; first and foremost, it’s just a compelling story with just about every dramatic element out there — war, violence, love, faith, politics, great evil and tremendous good. But it’s more than that, so much more. It challenged the way the mainstream media reported the story of the displaced. It captured the ambiguities surrounding international aid and its utility. It reflected the frustrating curse of relative wealth, the way in which every struggle abets a new struggle, and the universal difficulty of puzzling out an identity in a constantly changing world. Above all, it offered a bleak sense of hope and affirmed the power of connecting, simply connecting, to those around us, even when we’re hurt, even when we’re broken.

While I was reading it, my thoughts inevitably turned to the unrest in Kenya, the country in which many of the displaced Sudanese (and Somalis, and Burundians, and Ethiopians …) settled. I don’t even know how to begin unpacking my thoughts; what does the situation in what is considered one of Africa’s beacons of light mean for the continent? Is it fair to even pose that question, with my meager American knowledge of life there, societies there? What next? What now?