Year: 2017

Mini Reviews: Dear Martin & I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Joanna Kosinska

Over the last few weeks, two of the books I read seemed worthy of discussion here but I struggled independently and for different reasons over both in what to write about them for a full post.   I don’t know that I will do this often but today is going to be a mini review of both. (And, it turns out, they share a book birthday! #serenedipity).

First up is Dear Martin by Nic Stone.

Justyce McAllister is a top student at one of the best prep schools in Atlanta. He also happens to be one of the only black students in the almost-entirely-white school. In the first chapters of the book, Justyce is aggressively detained by a white police officer over a misunderstanding—an encounter that leaves Justyce shaken. He begins to write letters to Martin Luther King to process through what it would mean to live by Dr. King’s nonviolent principles in a world that still seems hell-bent on forcing subjugation or violent confrontation on African Americans. A second encounter leaves Justyce grieving and grappling with the media spotlight.

The Hate U Give parallels
In many ways, Dear Martin, is strikingly like The Hate U Give—this is, in fact, one of the reasons I wasn’t sure I could do a full post justice. Many of the social justice issues I raised and linked to in that post apply equally. Justyce, like Starr, is one of the only black students at an all-white private school, has a white love interest, experiences micro-aggressions on a daily basis, and becomes a witness to an officer-involved shooting. Despite all of these commonalities, Dear Martin still feels fresh, relevant, and far from repetitive.

Dear Martin goes places The Hate U Give doesn’t—Justyce himself is detained by the police, he becomes hopeless enough that he’s drawn to a gang, he’s maligned in the media as a thug—this being the justification for an officer shooting at Justyce and his friend. Where the major characters in The Hate U Give were all either living in the poor areas Starr lives or, at best, a middle class neighborhood, Justyce finds himself surrounded by a world of money. With this change and the events that throw Justyce unwittingly into the spotlight, Stone is able to explore more fully the ideas of black “respectability” and the idea that, at the end of the day, when it comes to many encounters with white authority/law enforcement, a rich black teenager is just another black man and is just as likely to be killed by police.

I highly recommend Dear Martin for anyone who read and enjoyed The Hate U Give. I also recommend it for readers who were intimidated by THUGDear Martin is about half the length and I flew through it in a day. If you’re still not sure what the deal is with Black Lives Matter—why its necessary—or what micro-aggressions look like, Dear Martin is an easy place to start. Justyce and the supporting characters in the book are believable and mostly likeable (except the ones who aren’t supposed to be). The book is tightly written with both YA and adult appeal.

Published: October 17, 2017 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Nic Stone (@getnicced)
Date read: December 15, 2017

Next is I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a National Book Award Finalist for YA Fiction.

First generation Mexican-American teenager Julia (not Jewel-ia) needs to get out of her parents’ house where the combined weight of her parents’ expectations and the perfection of her older sister is slowly crushing her to death in her roach-infested apartment. Until Julia’s sister dies and Julia begins to discover things about her sister that she just can’t let go. The deeper she digs, the harder life gets, the more Julia spirals until it seems there’s no way out. Was her sister’s death her fault? Can Julia ever feel free?

Hot-button Themes
Through Julia’s story, Sanchez is able to introduce scenarios that get at why many immigrants risk everything to leave their homes to come to the US, the dangers inherent in trusting coyotes to lead you across the border, the pressures many immigrant families place on their children, the extreme poverty many immigrants live in (particularly those without status who are then more vulnerable to exploitation), and the stigma of mental illness—both generally and within specific communities. Sanchez handles each of these with aplomb and gentleness, particularly the last.

Why Not a Full Review?
I’ve mentioned a few times that certain books—again, THUG—aren’t written for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them but that at the end of the day I’m not the audience the reader had in mind when she wrote a book. I can learn from these books but I’ll never be able to fully identify with the main characters.   I still chose to review books like THUG in hopes that my blog might lead someone to pick them up who wouldn’t have previously, while acknowledging that my review would not be able to do full justice to the lived experience of those who look like and live like the characters. There are things I will never truly understand, as a woman with all of the privileges except the gender one.

My inability to fully review a book like this was never more true than with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The book has short conversations and ideas expressed in Spanish that went almost entirely over my head. There were also some significant cultural themes that I knew enough to recognize there was something happening that I didn’t fully understand. My reading of this book was likely only the top of the iceberg.

Representation Matters
With that said, I believe down to my bones that representation matters. That we need books like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, THUG, and American Street—books that are written by people of color about people of color and the unique struggles they continue to face in this country. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book and there are not enough opportunities for non-white teenagers to see themselves in books of this caliber. For white audiences, these characters embody the grey of the black-and-white news stories on “illegal immigrants”* and yet another African American slain by cops for chewing his gum the wrong way in the “wrong” neighborhood (re: the nice one). I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be read by first generation Latinx teenagers who can’t remember the last time they saw someone who looked and talked like them in a book. It should also be read by the white woman who doesn’t have close friends without status, because even she should have exposure to these themes.

Published: October 17, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf / @knopfteen)
Author: Erika L. Sanchez (@erikalsanchez)
Date read: December 6, 2017

*Do not get me started on how it is impossible for a human being to be illegal.

Hindsight // Foresight December 20, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this…month

I did not intend or anticipate going a month without posting any updates or reviews.  I started and finished My Absolute Darling but had such an awful time with it, it sent me into a bit of a slump.  I wanted to finish it so I could review it fairly (I didn’t think it right to rate something in the neighborhood of two stars without actually finishing) but forcing myself to finish a book I didn’t enjoy also sent me into a bit of a slump with not wanting to actually read.  Combined with particularly busy weeks at work and there you have a month of no reviews.

I’ll spare you the lengthy list of of books I’ve acquired over the last month (Hi…my name is Lisa…I’m a book-a-holic).  I did finish several books recently including Code Name Verity, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, Stranger in the Woods, and Rose Under Fire.  I’m currently taking a break and jumping back into Voyager.  This week finally felt like a good reset and I’m back in a good reading pattern.

Foresight for the coming week

I’ve been thinking about my reading going forward.  Ironically, I don’t think I’ll finish any of the challenges I started this year but I’m actually fine with that.  I didn’t read much in 2016.  This year got me back into reading in my spare time and the challenges gave me something to jump start me back into it.  Rather than do challenges next year, I want to shoot for reading books I already own and reading some classics.  I’ve mostly been stuck in reading what’s new (which, has been great) but there’s so much I haven’t read and I don’t want to feel like I have to read the newest thing to stay up.  That was a mistake with My Absolute Darling and I won’t do that again.

I would like to finish Voyager this year along with a few others–maybe Manhattan Beach or Priestdaddy.


Are you reading anything good? I’d love to hear in the comments.

Review: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

“But now it’s more for me, to keep track of all these days, to make me remember them. Maybe I can figure things out later that I can’t understand now.” She slipped the diary back in her bag. “In the end, that’s really all there is to life, right? What you remember? And what other people remember? The forgotten moments are totally gone, no matter how good or important they might have been.”

The Confusion of Languages is the knitting together and unraveling of a friendship between two women. There’s Cassie, a military wife who has lived in Jordan for years, ready to take Margaret under her wing, and Margaret, new to marriage, to motherhood, and to the Middle East, valuing kindness over custom.

The book opens with a car accident, a mother disappearing, a friendship spiraling out of control. Fallon tells her tale in in alternating chapters between Cassie in real time and Margaret’s diary (as Cassie begins to read it), allowing the reader to see how the friendship was stitched together and how it was torn apart—two stitches forward, one stitch ripped back.

Finding the Book and Coming Up With a Rating
I picked up The Confusion of Languages because Anne Bogel recommended it on her summer reading list and it took me this long to come up on the library hold list. The summer reading list was a bit more hit-and-miss for me than I expected, with The Confusion of Languages being a bit of a let down initially. One book on the list drove me crazy (The Lost Book of the Grail) and one was okay but a bit unexpectedly fluffy (A Bridge Across the Ocean). Some were absolute home runs (The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Anything is Possible, The Almost Sisters, Beartown, The Hate U Give, Dreamland Burning). I wanted The Confusion of Languages to be a homerun for me but it just wasn’t. To be fair to Fallon, it was likely the bit of the slump I was in colored my feelings toward the book—I probably needed something that was less of a slow, simmer and more of an immediately-boiling-book last week.

On top of this, one of the characters is absolutely abhorrent and she is making it difficult for me to fairly rate the book. On the one hand, I despise her so much I want to rate the book low because of her centrality to the narrative. On the other, I’m certain that I’m supposed to have a visceral negative reaction to her and the fact that I did find her so unsettling is a credit to Fallon as a writer—I am feeling what she wants me to feel. My immediate reaction was to rate it three stars, but as I get a few days’ distance from it, I can see the power of Fallon’s writing, how she sucked me in and made me love/hate characters despite myself.   Like Lincoln in the Bardo, distance is making me recognize the power of the writing.

Fallon does an excellent job at making her characters well-rounded. Cassie is recognizable as someone we’ve all met—deeply flawed but real. Margaret through Cassie’s eyes is flighty; yet, through Margaret’s diary we see the value she placed on kindness—particularly kindness over custom. This emphasis on kindness and how it plays out with friendships and actions towards the Middle Eastern men around her ultimately brings her trouble. You know it’s coming but Fallon allows you to hope that it won’t—that Margaret’s naïve believe in kindness can, in fact, win over everyone. That it is the value that can trump all others.

And yet, this was not kindness developed in a vacuum. Through telling her story of how she met her husband Crick and became pregnant, and life before Crick, Margaret reveals her innocence, how deeply she was sheltered. You see how Margaret came to believe in kindness-over-all and the blindspots her background gave her. It was refreshing to see this value on kindness and, even with the way Margaret’s kindness causes the events in The Confusion of Languages to play out, I was still left with the sense that kindness is still mostly worth it. That the risk of being kind is still worth taking.

While the central relationship in the book is Cassie’s and Margaret’s friendship, each woman is in Jordan because she’s a trailing spouse of a military man. Margaret’s husband Crick is more fleshed out, mostly because he also interacts with Cassie, so stories of him are told by both women. He is a bit one-dimensional—walking machismo with the tiniest vein of tenderness and doubt that only Margaret got to see until the very end. He is the foil against which each woman reveals her own character, the brick wall for Margaret’s ivy tendrils and Cassie’s choking garden weeds. In contrast, Cassie’s own husband, Dan, is barely mentioned. We experience him almost solely through Cassie’s discussions of how he “unfairly” doesn’t trust her, how their infertility has become a cloud of judgment over her. This seemed to me a missed opportunity for Fallon. As portrayed, he is rather longsuffering and I do not for the life of me understand why he stayed with Cassie unless he was a bit of an emotional masochist. Having him be more fleshed out would answer so questions as to his own motivations and what the hell is going on with him and Cassie, since his staying seems so beyond anything I really understand.

Fallon’s style clearly delineated between Cassie’s current telling of the tale to the reader-audience and Margaret’s voice in her journal, intended solely for herself. Margaret’s unself-conscious writing was often briefly lovely—for example, when she told the story of her doorman giving her child chocolate intended as a welcoming gift but it was so old as to have gone grey. The baby spits it out and Margaret goes back in the dark to find the sliver of chocolate so that the doorman would not “find the spat-out gift and hav[e] to get down on hands and knees to clean up his own kindness.”

The two different focuses—Cassie to the audience and Margaret to herself—aided the story, enabling the reader to see Margaret as she was/saw herself as opposed to how only Cassie saw her—a detail that becomes important as the book progresses, since Cassie is slowly revealed to be a less than honest reporter of the people and actions around her.

There were no hiccups in the writing—nothing that made me cringe or roll my eyes. Here too the writing was tight, a credit to Fallon and her editor.

Overall Rating
Having had a few days distance from my gut reaction towards this book, I think it’s a solid almost-four. A three and three quarters. Fallons writing is heads and shoulders above many and the book was engaging with three dimensional characters that pulled you in despite yourself. It is a slow burn, more suited for a long, cold night by the fire than a summer day by the beach, even if the setting is warmer climes.

Published June 27, 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (@putnambooks)
Author: Siobhan Fallon
Date read: November 11, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars
Tw: suicide, gaslighting

Hindsight // Foresight November 13, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

I finished The Confusion of Languages this week–it was good but another slow burn so I didn’t wind up gobbling it up like I wanted.  I started Manhattan Beach–I’m only like ten pages in but I need this to grab my attention.  I need something that isn’t a slow burn.  Work is still a bit crazy so that’s part of it.  I also just really need to get off my cell phone.  With my FitBit, if someone texts me, I’ll know–so I really need to say “no surfing” after 8, or even 7, so that I don’t waste so much time on Facebook and Instagram.  I’ll look if someone texts but that’s it.

I have found, in totally non-bookish news, that I’m getting better sleep, or at least feeling more rested, with my natural light alarm clock.  I’m getting slightly less total sleep since the light usually wakes me about ten minutes before the actual alarm but I’m not being jolted awake from deep sleep so I feel less groggy when I wake up.  Now if I could just get better about not Facebooking before bed and I’ll be set.

The only acquisition this week was Tom Hank’s collection of short stories, Uncommon Type from Book of the Month.*

Foresight for the coming week

I need to go ahead and knock out Miami Century Fox and review it on LibraryThing.  It has the added bonus of qualifying for my book of poetry in translation on a theme other than love for BookRiot #ReadHarder Challenge.  I am out of town for work the next two days–that either means I’ll get a great deal of reading done or none at all.  Sort of hit or miss.

Besides Miami Century Fox, I want to knock out Manhattan Beach and My Absolute Darling.  That last one is from the library and I’d like to finish in time to review it without rushing.

Are you reading anything good? I’d love to hear in the comments.

*This is my affiliate link–if you decide to try BOTM, I’ll get a free book at no cost to you.  There are always some great deals at BOTM–currently you can get 1/3 off the price of a three month subscription plus a free tote (I LOVE this tote–it’s the perfect size) with the code “REV3.”  BOTM also has gift subscriptions for the bookworm in your life.  <3  I tried it and loved it so much I decided to stay subscribed.

Review: Beartown by Fredrick Backman

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.

In the forest, there’s a town that loves hockey, whose identify is defined by the cuts of skates on ice, the check of bodies on the boards.  When one of their own rapes a classmate right before the game that could change the fortunes of the dying town, the question becomes –who and what does Beartown love most?

Why now?
Admittedly, this is the longest distance between the date I’ve read a book and reviewed a book. I finished Beartown shortly before I started this blog and I always meant to go back and review it. None of the other books I’ve finished recently really lent themselves to being reviewed (or, I didn’t really want to review some of them), and so this seemed like a good time to pull Beartown back out.

Beartown is one of those books that sits with you—it’s impactful as you’re reading it, as you finish, and even months later. Backman’s writing in A Man Called Ove was impeccable—he takes that vocabulary and skill and applies it to a harsher topic in Beartown. Where A Man Called Ove made you love a curmudgeon whose heart was, despite all appearances, too big for his body, Beartown makes you love and hate and rage at a small town torn apart by a date rape. It still feels like yesterday that I finished this book and I can feel the lump rising in my throat as I flip through the sections I marked and as I type this review.

Beartown’s events detail how a date rape happens and one version of the impact, though a common version. Rape can happen to anyone—there is no one who is immune from this awful possiblity.  And when it happens, the victims (usually, but not always, girls and women) are overwhelmingly not believed. They are “encouraged” and they are threatened to take it back, to consider the impact on the man, the family, the team, the town. Women are sacrificed at the altar of men’s reputations every day. Beartown is Everytown. Beartown is how we get to #metoo—because many, many girls and women do not want to survive what the survivor goes through in Beartown.

And yet, Beartown is a beautiful book. It’s fair that there are (probably a lot) of people who don’t want to read a book about rape. Who have experienced it (1 in 4 women), who know someone who has (everybody—whether you know it or not), and so do not want to read a book about rape. I absolutely get that and wish you nothing but light and hope if that is you. But don’t let this book turn you off just because a rape is the inciting incident. There is tenderness and love in Beartown.   There is a Mama Bear whose heart made me want to rage right next to her. A boy whose outward bruiser appearance belies the tenderness within him. (I wanted to wrap Benji in a warm blanket and give him a place to rest, though he’d certainly have resisted.) There is a bullied child, given the opportunity to become an insider, but at a cost that may turn him into someone else entirely. There is a victim who becomes a survivor, a woman strong enough to live and move on, despite everything she endured that night and the months and years that followed.

With everything happening in the media, this book feels so timely and true—everyone who is emotionally able should read this book.

But so…it’s a sports book?
The heart of Beartown is its hockey rink, so much of the plot revolves around this rink and it’s teams. I am not absolutely sports inept (I love baseball) but I know next to nothing about hockey. This knowledge isn’t necessary, nor does the fact that it’s about hockey take away from the overall plot. Backman sets up what you need to know—that hockey defines this town, these people, circumscribes the culture.

A common refrain I’ve heard from the many other women who’ve read this book is that they thought the hockey part would detract from the story or would otherwise affect their interest, but it didn’t. The set up within the hockey rink, however, gives the book a solid cross-gender appeal and is a book I think even stereotypically masculine cis-men find relatable and compelling.

Character Development
It would take days to discuss the various characters Backman created, nor do I want to spoil every bit of character development, so I’ll refrain from discussing most of the characters and only go into a few below (and not even discuss some of my favorites, like Benji). It worth note, however, that with his skill Backman manages to present even minor characters who don’t show up often (like Ann-Katrin) with a depth directly inverse to the amount of words spent on them.

While there is a clear villain and Backman is not morally vague about his wrongs or the wrongs of the town, he also does a surprising job at humanizing the rapist. You can see how this kid got to where he is, the pressure people put on him…and yet you never feel so sorry for him that you excuse his actions. It’s a razor-fine line that Backman balances on so effortlessly you almost miss the skill with which he presented the rapist to the reader.

There are things fifteen year-old children should never have to experience. And while the obvious thing here is rape, another example is to have a friend be a victim of such a crime. Where you were when it happened, how you responded, how you respond now are all impossible enough when your brain isn’t still developing, when Facebook and texts and high school aren’t still a thing. God forbid, should such a thing ever happen to a child I know, may they have a friend like this survivor’s friend.

Within the larger story is also a theme of what it means to be an “insider” – who is “us” and who is “them.” Like almost anywhere else, Beartown is divided socioeconomically with the poor kids—the ones who rarely become good at hockey because they can’t afford the equipment, the lessons, the time to practice—so often left on the outside. Yet in skates little Amat–not-white within the homogeneous milk-white of Beartown’s racial landscape—and poor to boot. Backman makes you love Amat, cheer for Amat, cringe and wring your hands at his choices, and the cost he’s apparently willing to pay to be inside. Amat is a high school everyman and I loved him.

Generally speaking, Backman also does a commendable job making his characters diverse. There is a gay character whose inclusion could easily feel like it was done as a token inclusion in anyone’s hands other than Backman’s. There are characters of color and from a wide swath of Beartown’s socioeconomic strata. I defy you to read this book and not find at least one character you identify with.

I could wax poetic about Fredrick Backman’s writing. He has these pithy turns of phrase (“Amat sat in the corner, doing his best interpretation of an empty corner”) and descriptions that make you laugh and feel like you were right there (“the president is sitting at his desk eating a sandwich the way a German shepherd would try to eat a balloon filled with mayonnaise.”). He also has stretches of beautiful prose, of short truisms that never feel trite and cut deeply as they land.

The feat accomplished here is all the more impressive when you consider that the book is translated and yet the writing still holds up so well. The writing isn’t overly flowery or poetic, there’s nothing that feels lofty. Backman is both genius (who describes someone as a dog eating a balloon of mayonnaise…and yet you know exactly what he’s describing) and down to earth (see, again, balloon of mayonnaise). Because the style makes the book so accessible, Beartown is a surprisingly easy read, necessary when you consider the difficulty of the topic. The writing also lends Backman’s books to being easily enjoyed on audio—I loved A Man Called Ove on audio and, while I have not listened to Beartown, would expect no different of this one.

Ending (No Spoilers…Mostly)
Because this is a Fredrik Backman book, the ending is bittersweet. There is redemption for most of the major characters. Of course, not every rape story ends this way—many people aren’t able to seek the help they need, are never believed, are never able to recover fully or even mostly. Because of this, I can see (though haven’t heard) Backman drawing some criticism for prettying up his victim’s ending. It would be foolish to assume that every victim can be as resilient as the victim—there are a myriad factors that enabled the victim to end where she does when Beartown ends, many of them out of her control. Because of this, this survivor should not be the measuring stick against which other victims are judged. I ultimately have no problem with the way Backman ended his book on a mostly redemptive note, so long as this ending isn’t seen as representative or possible for all victims.

Published April 25, 2017 by Atria Books (@AtriaBooks)
Author: Fredrick Backman (@backmansk)
Date read: July 15, 2017
Rating: 5 stars, in top five books of 2017

Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse

When this string of fires began, they defendants were in love. By the time they finished, they weren’t.

In 2012 and 2013, a quiet, rural county on the Eastern Shore of Virginia suddenly found itself ablaze, with seventy-plus fires lit over an approximately ten month period. American Fire is the story of those tasked with putting out the fires, those who finally found the culprits, and those whose love drove them to terrorize their neighbors with a literal, extended trial by fire.

Narrative nonfiction done well
I first noticed American Fire when it was a Book of the Month pick a few months ago. It wasn’t one that I wanted to choose that month since I like to spend money on books I know will be good and narrative nonfiction can be hit or miss for me. I knew, however, this was one I’d follow up and get from the library.

I was not disappointed in my choice to pick this one up and, having read it, would consider it worthy of a BOTM credit. Hesse writes for The Washington Post and her journalism background clearly informed her research and writing. She was meticulous in her notes and I appreciated her acknowledgements for the members of Accomack County for their help at the end of the book. She portrays Accomack honestly but never strays into “hokey,” which would have been easy to do.

Hesse highlights the “human interest” in the book well—she features many of the firefighters and law enforcement tasked with finding the arsonists—you could almost see many of them tired, covered in soot, but still out there every night. Despite the fact that at least 75% of the characters in the book are male—a function of the gender makeup of the average fire and police stations—I was able to keep the characters straight. (I say this without irony—when all the characters are white males, there is at least a 90% chance I can’t follow the book and wind up putting it down. See e.g., Wolf Hall.) I care about these (mostly) men and women. She also humanizes the male defendant, Charlie. To the extent one can sympathetically depict an arsonist, Hesse has done this well. Her portrayal of the female half of the duo, Tonya, is a bit more clinical, though this almost certainly comes from Tonya’s refusal to be interviewed by Hesse. Hesse acknowledges that this makes sense—Tonya is still appealing her cases and so it wasn’t in her interest to be interviewed. You get the sense, however, that Tonya was the driving force in the fires, despite her protestations in her appeals.

Though she was somewhat limited by Tonya’s reticence to talk to her, because Charlie did cooperate with being interviewed—both with formal law enforcement interviews and with Hesse—American Fire is juicy in a way that you usually don’t get with a narrative nonfiction like this. Charlie and Tonya were a real couple, with real struggles, who chose to relieve tension in their relationship by starting fires several times a week. It’s the plot of an episode of Jerry Springer or Maury, and yet Hesse never gets tabloidish—American Fire is juicy enough to be scandalous and interesting yet still straightforward and literary in tone and style. It was an interesting balance and Hesse mostly struck it well.

Accomack County and Hillbilly Elegy
Interestingly, the book reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy in some ways. American Fire was in no way a political screed, nor did Hesse stray into politics even indirectly. The commonalities instead came from the people—like many of the people Vance discusses, the people of Accomack County are almost entirely blue-collar, many living paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s a quiet place, but (having been nearby) a beautiful one, with deep roots for those who stay—though that number is dwindling. Indeed, the slow flight from the county is what made it so prime for the crime of arson—as Hesse notes, abandoned or empty buildings outnumbered actual people. Once the pattern was (quickly) discovered, the sheer number of empty buildings made it nearly impossible to stake out the likely targets since the targets so greatly outnumbered law enforcement, even with reinforcements called in.

It’s not a perfect comparison—Accomack County went 55% to Trump and 43% to Clinton while many of the counties and areas featured in Vance’s screed went more solidly for Trump. Yet, you get the sense that these are many of the people Vance wrote about. The people Hesse interviewed were largely proud of being from Accomack County—with the “Born Heres” distinguished from the “Come Heres.” The fire department is run by volunteers, but it never lacked for staff during the fires—Accomack County will care for its own.

Also by Monica Hesse….
It was not until literally the last page that I realized Hesse wrote another book I’d read and enjoyed last year—The Girl in the Blue Coat. In my defense, The Girl in the Blue Coat is a YA mystery set in Holland during the Nazi occupation, so the tone and audience were so wildly different that I wasn’t clued into the common author. I don’t know that I’d say if you enjoyed American Fire that you should read The Girl in the Blue Coat since their very different genres won’t automatically appeal to the same audience; however, if you enjoy YA and/or WWII Fiction, I do think The Girl in the Blue Coat is also worth your time.

Published July 11, 2017 by Liveright (@liverightpublishing)
Author: Monica Hesse
Date read: October 17, 2017
Rating: 4 stars

Hindsight // Foresight November 6, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

I finally finished Music of the Ghosts this week– it was well written but sloooooow.  At the 70% mark, when we finally got to what happened in the Khmer Rouge prison it picked up and I raced through the last third but before that was a bit of a slog to get through.  I did have to pause in the middle to read Fierce Kingdom since that was going to be due back to the library.  I don’t plan to review that one here but it was a nice diversion and a solid thriller.  I rated it 3 1/4 stars.  I started A Confusion of Languages last night and am hoping that one keeps my interest.

I wound up stopping A Gentleman in Moscow on audio–it was getting a bit hard to follow.  I will likely try again soon–I liked what I was hearing but this may be a book I need to read in print.  We’ll see–I do plan to read this one this year, in one format or another.  I started I Was Told There’d Be Cake since I picked it up and it looked interesting when I was at the Green Valley Book Fair.  I prefer this kind of book in audio so I borrowed it from the library.  So far I’m meh on it, but we’ll see if it picks up.  I also downloaded one of the Diverse Book Club books, Ginny Moon, on audio so if Cake doesn’t hold my interest, I’ve got that to start.

Speaking of, the theme this month in Diverse Books Club is disabilities–I have no problems with the choices generally but was disappointed to see that mental illness wasn’t represented at all.  I probably need to go on the message boards and recommend some solid books on MI like The Center Cannot Hold. 

In acquisitions this week, I picked up My Absolute Darling, Stranger in the Woods, and This is Just My Face from the library.  There were some good kindle sales so I picked up Rabbit Cake, What Remains True (Kindle First for November), 1968, and The Sun is Also a Star.

Foresight for the coming week

I feel like I’m in a bit of slump.  I should have some good time to read but we’ll see if A Confusion of Languages can hold my interest or if I wind up picking something else up.  I’ve also got Miami Century Fox to read and review for LibraryThing –I do plan to do that this week.

Are you reading anything good? I’d love to hear in the comments.

Review: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

“I refused to be shamed.”
“How did you do that?” you asked.
“When they came at me, I kept coming.”

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Aviva Grossman was a Congressional intern who fell for her boss, got caught up in an affair, and caught. In essence, she was Monica Lewinski with a blog. Young Jane Young is how it happened and what followed—as told by Aviva’s mother; a wedding planner named Jane Young; the Congressman’s wife, Embeth; Jane’s daughter Ruby; and Aviva herself. At its heart, Young Jane Young is the story of the choices women make—the ones they are forced to make, the ones others make for them, and the ones they are finally able to freely make themselves—and the way society treats women for these choices.

The Author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
One of the books that people (particularly women) in my bookish community seem to love is The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry—it gets referred to and recommended frequently. So frequently, in fact, that I read it as my first book of 2017 for the “Book You Were Excited to Borrow or Buy But Haven’t Read Yet.” To be fair to Fikry, very little probably could have held up to the hype. It was…fluffier that I expected. It was quick and it was cute and I can see why people love it, but “cute” isn’t really my thing when I read, unless I’m deliberately looking for something lighthearted after a run of dark books. When Anne announced the picks for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club for fall, I’ll admit to being a little let down—I didn’t think Fikry was poorly written, (quite the opposite) I just didn’t see Zevin’s books as book club discussion material.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Zevin’s style is still very much the same—her writing as a lighthearted quality to it and parts of it are still what I would refer to as “cute;” however, the subject matter for Young Jane Young is timely and Zevin seems to have a deliberate point of view in Young Jane Young that was missing in Fikry. Where Fikry sought to entertain, Young Jane Young sends a clear message about the names and values we place on women and their mistakes—particularly compared to men who make the same. This isn’t to say Young Jane Young isn’t entertaining—it still is. But this one had the “hook” that Fikry seemed to be missing that gave me a reason to want to keep reading.

The structure of Young Jane Young is interesting—each character’s section is told in its entirety before moving on to another’s so there is some moving back and forth through time. Zevin clearly distinguished between her characters, using a different form for each section, in addition to including speech patterns unique to certain characters like Rachel’s use of Yiddish phrases and Ruby’s more modern slang.

We start with Rachel, written in stream-of-consciousness and move onto Jane, written in a more typical literary style. Ruby follows written purely as emails to her pen-pal Fatima. Embeth, the Congressman’s wife uses free and direct discourse in the third person—this use of third person distances her from the other characters and emphasizes her outsider status compared to the other four voices. Finally we hear from Aviva, written as a choose-your-own adventure novel, with the choices removed. This form highlights Aviva’s relative youth at the time of the scandal and allows the reader to see her choices dwindling as the action progresses. The last section borders on gimmicky and might throw off a reader unfamiliar with Zevin’s style. From reading Fikry, I expected the “cute” so this didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise and it services Zevin’s purposes well. By the time this structural choice came up (the last section of the book), I was invested in the narrative and message, so I didn’t find this off-putting, though I freely admit it is the kind of thing that usually drives me to sprain my eye-muscles from rolling them too hard when it isn’t done really well.

Feminist Choices
I was a child when the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened so I honestly haven’t thought terribly hard about it—it wasn’t on my radar then and it doesn’t really come up often anymore. Young Jane Young forces the reader to reconsider the narrative—at least in the mainstream media that I vaguely recall from the time, there was not an emphasis on the power imbalance, on the age imbalance. Words like “slut” were thrown around to describe her while President Clinton’s punishment came not for the sex, but for lying about it to people who wasn’t supposed to lie to. She was punished for the act, he was punished only for trying to cover it up the wrong way. People questioned her parents’ choices, her morals. She was the temptress, the woman who should have kept her legs and mouth closed. She was, quite simply, at fault, despite the fact that she was 22, only five years’ removed from being legally a child. Indeed, it seems everyone wants to blame everyone except President Clinton—Hillary Clinton found herself in the spotlight from whispers about why she wasn’t able to keep her man happy so that he wouldn’t stray to why she chose to stay.

As Zevin noted in the discussion with the MMD book club, the scandal at the heart of Young Jane Young is not really a sex scandal—it’s a sexist scandal. Aviva’s mother Rachel sets the stage, providing the foundation and background facts of the scandal and the current state of affairs ten years later. Next is Jane, living a quiet life in Maine with her daughter Ruby, as far removed from the scandal as possible, yet still not far enough away not to have the Grossman scandal come back up. Ruby follows, with wide-eyed precociousness giving a black-and-white, right-and-wrong perspective common only to children and newscasters. Embeth follows—the woman scorned yet also the woman who stayed. Finally, Aviva and her choices filling in the gaps. At each step, we see the effect of judgment on the character speaking, on Aviva generally, on women as a whole since we so often live and die on each other’s mistakes being held against us. One of Aviva’s vignettes that stood out so starkly was a discussion with a political science professor where she remarks that the feminists didn’t stand by her—didn’t point out the age gap, the Congressman’s role. The professor remarks that it was true but the Congressman was good on women’s issues. The one woman was sacrificed for the man, in hopes a greater good might result from the man remaining in power.  And so nothing seems to be changing.

While I likely wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the MMD Book Club, I’m glad I did and I’m keeping an eye out for my own copy. Zevin kept the quirk and cute that made Fikry so popular while having meat and a message behind Young Jane Young. It is rare that a book comes across as so light and readable while still packing this much of a punch. Zevin does a remarkable job packing the book with the myriad examples of the way women are held to an entirely different standard than men in politics (and generally) without the book ever becoming preachy (save for the vignette with the professor). The book made an excellent book club selection—any time there are lots of choices made by multiple characters there is plenty of fodder for discussion. Young Jane Young goes one further in that characters make choices but the message of the book turns the reader’s reactions back on them—i.e. Aviva made a choice and this is your reaction to it—what does that reaction say about you? About society? About how we judge and value women? About the standards we measure them against?

Published: August 22, 2017 (my birthday!) by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Gabrielle Zevin (@gabriellezevin)
Date read: October 10, 2017
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

It scarcely matters what is actually happening. She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it. She lets the power tickle at her fingers, scorching the varnish on the underside of the table. She can smell its sweet chemical aroma. Nothing that either of these men says is really of any significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs.  It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

The Power tells the time period during which the power balance shifted—women (starting with teenage girls and waking in older women) have gained the power to electrify those they touch and, as a result, have become the default stronger, more powerful sex. Suddenly men find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape where every interaction with a woman can suddenly turn dangerous.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Power has drawn numerous comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale—I understand this comparison but it is somewhat misleading. In plot, The Power is the exact opposite of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Rather than men running the world and a shortage of women, the world of The Power flips the power dynamic entirely and places women at the apex of power with men being the ones subjugated. Where the comparison rings true is the message and POV of the book. Alderman was literally mentored by Atwood and both books highlight the evils that arise when men are the sole sex in charge—Atwood by describing the extremes of men in charge and Alderman by narrating what happens when women take over and the gender-roles of power are flipped.

Structure and Writing
Alderman’s writing is well-constructed and snappy—there aren’t long poetic runs of prose, except in the religious “excerpts” where the prose fits the Biblical-style. Despite presenting four major viewpoints, Alderman is able to distinguish the voice and present distinct points-of-view for each character. Adding to the narrative are selected “primary” documents – letters, pictures of artifacts, excerpts from The Book of Eve. This could easily become gimmicky but because Alderman uses them sparingly, they add to the story. It is worth noting that with the use of the female-based religion (venerating the Mother over Jesus specifically), this book could easily become distasteful (or downright blasphemous) to devout Christians. The book is presented as a countdown to some unknown event so the timeline remains in flux—while the book doesn’t need a mystery element like this to be page-turning, it does add an additional element of the unknown—the book had a very clear climax that it worked towards.

Depth and Breadth
Arguably The Power’s greatest strength is also it’s biggest flaw. I was hard pressed to think of any gender role, stereotype, or gender crime that didn’t get flipped and addressed. I’m sure I missed some but the list includes religious-based sexism/gender-roles; how women can “control” sexual impulses (for both genders) by just keeping their (in this case) arms crossed; the plagiarism of women’s writing and the need to use nom de plumes in order to have women’s writing reach a wider audience; the rates of domestic violence and murder of women; gender-based gang violence; women who are opposed to feminism/women having power; women wanting to be men because of their power; women needing to take self-defense classes; parents worried about how girls are being victimized in school; gender roles in newscasting with a patronizing man covering business topics and the giggly woman covering serious topics like bobbing for apples; having a war correspondent be known/popular for how hot she looks when reporting; gender roles within families; having to have permission to travel/having to be with a guardian in public; genital mutilation; internal classes within gender where those who have less of the traditional (or new traditional) features of “masculinity” or “femininity” are judged/less than; and historians interpreting historical artifacts based on the current understanding of power (and discounting that which doesn’t fit).

There was a point at which it almost felt like too much—like Alderman was trying too hard to fit absolutely positively every gender issue into The Power. On the flip side, I know there are many who think this is an impressive feat that Alderman accomplishes and that each of these issues deserves to be mentioned, if for nothing else, than to show the impact misogyny has on absolutely every area of life. At the end of the day, for me it felt like hammering just a little too hard but wasn’t so distracting that it took away from the reading experience for me.

End game
It is easy to rue men’s current leadership and latch on to the idea that if women ran things the world would be better—everyone would be more gentle, there would be no war, and we’d all skip through fields of daisies, holding hands. Had this been where Alderman took The Power, it would have been a weak utopia. In contrast, Alderman’s message (one of the many) may be the idea that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Where Atwood left open the possibility that a female-run world would be better, it’s not clear that Alderman’s world is actually better. Certainly, it’s better for women and you can make a convincing argument that men have had the run of things for a couple millennia so it’s our turn. But Alderman doesn’t buy the idea that women in charge automatically means a more harmonious world. It wasn’t entirely where I expected the book to go but it was the right choice—both logically and for purely for the story’s sake as well.

As noted, this book is a bit gritty and raw in plot—it is unapologetically and in-your-face feminist. I loved it and am glad it was my Book of the Month pick this month—it is still available a la carte to add for future months if you’re a current member. It is also well-crafted and well-written, hitting those notes in my grammar-and-structure-loving heart.

Published October 10, 2017 (in the US) by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Naomi Alderman (@naomi_alderman)
Date read: October 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Hindsight // Foresight October 30, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

As predicted, I didn’t get in much extra reading this week.  I did go ahead and knock out a Ms. Marvel collection (volumes 1-11) for the Book Riot #ReadHarder challenge (superhero comic with a female lead).  Comics definitely still aren’t my thing but I love that Marvel has a sixteen year old, first generation Pakistani-American Muslim girl as a superhero lead.  Representation matters and Marvel knocked that one out of the park.

I’m still working my way through Music of the Ghosts.  I’m borderline on abandoning it but thinking I’m going to push through.  I’m trying to be more okay with putting down books I don’t love but I feel bad giving up on this one.  It’s beautifully written and deliberately slow–I think it just isn’t the right season for me to read something this slow, but I’m 70% through so I don’t want to jump ship now.  Hopefully I will finally finish this one this week.

And, speaking of “finally” doing things, I finally started A Gentleman in Moscow on audiobook and it is as lovely as everyone said.  I may look for this one in paper or hardback as well so I can have the physical copy.  I am literally running out of bookshelves so I need to figure something out here before the two boxes I bought from my mother arrive.  (Yikes!)  I am relatively minimalist when it comes to clothes.  Not so much for books.

Foresight for the coming week

I am going to knock out Music of the Ghosts this week and then I’ve got to start and get through Fierce Kingdom in four days (eep!).  I’ve finished Young Jane Young but need to type up my review before its also due in four days.  Hopefully work will be slightly less nuts this week and I’ll have time to do this, but admittedly, I’m not holding my breath.

Are you reading anything good? I’d love to hear in the comments.