Month: October 2017

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.

Review: The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Floating World in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, Algonquin Books, and C. Morgan Babst for the advance copy.

We don’t have time for the future, doctor. We hardly have time for the past. The only thing to do in the desert is to keep walking. Otherwise you will die of thirst before you make it to higher ground.

Set in the days and months following Hurricane Katrina, The Floating World tells the story of the disintegration of the Boisdoré family—mother, psychiatrist Dr. Tess Eschleman; father, artist Joe Boisdoré; sisters Del and Cora; and grandfather, former master woodworker Vincent Boisdoré. Before the storm, Tess and Joe try to get their daughter Cora to go with them—she refuses and her parents evacuate without her. Del rides out the storm in New York, where she fled many years before. After the storm, Tess and Joe return, first to find Cora physically, then to bring her back from where she’s been locked up mentally. Del returns as well, attempting both to draw Cora back to herself to quell pull of New Orleans in her own bones.

Subject Matter
With the focus on this family, the book felt less about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina and more about this family and their dynamics. When the books opens, it’s several weeks after the storm. While Joe and Tess evacuated and returned together, upon reentry they separate. Turns out, the winds were simply the thing that revealed the previously hidden distance between them.

An interesting (arguably frustrating) thing here is that “complicated family drama” isn’t the main way this book is marketed. Even within the publisher’s Amazon summary, the three paragraphs end by emphasizing that Katrina’s damage was “not, in fact, some random act of God, but an avoidable tragedy visited upon New Orleans’ most helpless and forgotten citizens.” With this summary, I went into the book with very different expectations. Katrina set the stage but neither the storm nor, frankly, the unequal impact of the devastation were really the subject here.

Complicated Family
This normally wouldn’t be an issue since complicated families are a favorite subject of mine for reading; however, something in The Floating World just fell flat. Much of my problem stemmed from my inability to really connect with any of the characters. Normally, there is something in at least one character that I can connect to—even if only tangentially. That connection makes me care about what happens to that character and, in turn, the characters that person cares for. While Babst attempts to make Cora’s sister, Del; her father, Joe; and her grandfather, Vincent into sympathetic characters, there just wasn’t enough there for me to connect to. Her mother, Tess, was so utterly selfish that I didn’t care to try to find a connection there. In hindsight, she’s probably supposed to be at least a little sympathetic—the psychiatrist on the edge of the nervous breakdown herself—but I found her so unlikeable as to almost a villain—nothing she did was right and her meddling was irritating.

Another White Author Problem?
I don’t want to over simplify and say it was entirely this; however, I do think at least some of the issue here came from a white writer trying to write black characters. Babst mentions things like the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers and the racial divide that placed the people of color in the areas that wound up with the most devastation, but she does it in a way that feels almost like an afterthought—she doesn’t show. She simply tells. A character gets up on their tiny soapbox for a moment, says their pithy background comment about how racism created the situation that Katrina revealed, climbs back down, and the narrative continues, totally disconnected from the point she was making. It was as if Babst herself didn’t realize there was such a racial impact to the storm until she learned about it afterwards, reading the newspapers, and felt compelled to share these nuggets to make her book more accurate. Which—these things are absolutely true—there was a huge racial impact. But Babst’s presentation of them was blunt and served more to make it clear she knew there was an impact so she could then carry on with the story she was otherwise telling.

Babst also attempts to get at some of the racial divide by having Joe be black and Tess be white—so, of course, Cora and Del are mixed race. This also didn’t seem to be done particularly well, especially when compared to a character like Rowan in Dreamland Burning. It felt almost like Babst wrote the story she wanted to tell, decided to make Joe black, and went back and changed some details to correspond to Joe being black. There is so much more here that could have been explored, but it felt half-hearted. I honestly wondered whether Babst had gotten POC beta readers.

Redeeming points
The only really redeeming points for me in this book were Cora and Vincent. When the book starts, you don’t hear much from Cora herself—there are a few small vignettes from her but the majority of the impression you get about Cora is from others—her mother and her sister in particular, as Joe is largely consumed with caring for his ailing father. You quickly gather that Cora has survived some unknown trauma that has caused her to curl into herself, sucking her into a depression she has apparently experienced before. She doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t bathe. She wanders in the flooded city full of toxic mud at night. Tess and Del attempt to help her, though it quickly feels obvious that these attempts are as much about Tess and Del as they are about Cora. Cora’s point of view isn’t tangibly presented until almost halfway through the book—which is a shame. She is perhaps a character I could have connected to and identified with; however, by waiting until over a third of the way in to really flesh her out from her own point of view, Babst waited too long. It was too late for me to feel invested in her or the book.

I did feel for Vincent as well—in the throes of Lewy Body Dementia, he bounces around in time, sometimes in the present, oftentimes not. He wasn’t a character I could identify with; however, I did feel sympathetic for him and his inclusion did make the story richer. Babst also probably missed some opportunities here by not having more scenes with Vincent’s past experiences of New Orleans. One of the most poignant scenes with Vincent is when he wanders off through the abandoned cars seeking a pie, seeing instead a New Orleans fifty years prior.

Mental Illness
I do think Babst did a respectable job with the treatment of depression in The Floating World—both with Cora and another character. As much as I hated Tess, her overbearing know-better-ness was also spot on for at least a handful of psychiatrists with whom I’ve interacted. Babst treated this particular topic respectfully, if not perfectly. Shoddy treatment of mental illness is a pet peeve of mine but nothing Babst did in this particular area set my nerves jangling.

Overall, The Floating World was technically well written but because I didn’t connect to the characters in any way, it just sort of…fell flat. There were several well-written paragraphs and turns of phrase that made me pause to appreciate the writing. (Tess’s paramour is described as “an aging Debutante’s Delight of middling intelligence”—I might have guffawed out loud at that one.) It was a solid effort and, if she can make me care about her characters, I’d give her sophomore attempt a go. Overall, the book is well above average in writing and there are definitely some reviewers out there that will disagree with my assessment about the characters being too unlikable or half-heartedly presented for connection. It was the writing that pushed me to a three and a half rating, rather than just a three.

One final note—Babst did make a style choice that didn’t bother me but may be disconcerting to some readers. Her sections are long and she switches back and forth between each family member without warning—there are no headers to tell you that you’ve switched characters. I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out that she’d switched points of view within a few second just by topic—the voice of her characters doesn’t vary terribly much between characters—this was perhaps a missed opportunity, though in Babst’s hands this could easily have become gimmicky (or worse).

Published: October 17, 2017 by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: C. Morgan Babst (@cmorganbabst)
Date read: October 16, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ stars

Hindsight // Foresight October 23, 2017 –The Catch Up Edition

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

It’s been kind of a crazy few weeks.  Food poisoning threw me off my game.  Then the sub-supervisor under me went into labor six weeks early, doubling my work load six weeks earlier than anticipated (she and baby are fine).  I thought I’d get a chance to write more while I was visiting my parents this week but, thanks to early baby, wound up working more than I would have liked and didn’t get to bank any posts.

I did, however, buy an absolute ton of books, as per usual when I visit my parents.  I specifically timed my visit with the Green Valley Book Fair, which is wonderful if you’ve never been.  Between the usual Goodwill hopping, the book fair, and a visit to the Midlothian Book Exchange I picked up Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams), Unaccustomed Earth, A Visit from the Goon Squad, two Joshilyn Jacksons, Behold the Dreamers, The Bean Trees, NW (Zadie Smith), The Circle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Among the Ten Thousand Things, Carry On Warrior, a Gloria Naylor, two Laini Taylors, Cloud Atlas, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I also went through my mother’s eight hundred books (I come by my book hoarding honestly) and picked out several to borrow.  Of course, those wouldn’t fit in my suitcase so my mother is shipping them–I think we are literally going to have to buy another book case before they arrive.  Oops?

While home I did get to get some reading in, finishing The Power, American Fire, and The Floating World.  I also finished Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and Forward by Abby Wambach on audio.  I started but abandoned Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.  I got through the first two stories but couldn’t push any farther.  Zhang’s stories had details that seemed only to shock–while I can do gross when it adds to the story, the fecal matter and vaginal explorations here were pointless except to show that millennial women can apparently be edgy too.  I can see why Lena Dunham thought it was great and wanted it on her imprint–that probably should have tipped me off that it wasn’t for me.


Foresight for the coming week

The next several weeks are going to be nuts at work, so we’ll see how that goes for my reading.  I’m currently in the middle of The Music of the Ghosts for Diverse Book Club and not sure I’ll manage to do more than finish that this week.  It’s good, but slow going.  If I do, I’ve got So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for MMD Book Club discussion next week to finish so that’s probably next.  I read and really enjoyed The Power and Forward so one of those will be on the blog this week along with The Floating World.

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

Review: Refugee by Alan Gratz

They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do, Mahmoud realized. The thought hit him like a lightning bolt. When they stayed where they were supposed to be—in the ruins of Aleppo or behind the fences of a refugee camp—people could forget about them….

Mahmoud’s first instinct was to disappear below decks. To be invisible. Being invisible in Syria had kept him alive. But now Mahmoud began to wonder if being invisible in Europe might be the death of him and his family. If no one saw them, no one could help them. And maybe the world needed to see what was really happening here.

A calm came over Lito, as though he’d come to some sort of understanding, some decision. “I see it now, Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: It didn’t. Because I didn’t change it. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.

According to UNICEF, almost fifty million children are uprooted from their homes, with 28 million fleeing conflict in places like Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan. Refugee tells the story of one such child—Mahmoud, feeling Aleppo after his home is destroyed—interspersed with the story of a Jewish child, Josef, on the MS St. Louis in 1939 and Isabel, a Cuban child fleeing for Miami in 1994. Refugee puts faces on the millions of children who, throughout the modern era, have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in lands not their own.

Briefly, if you are unfamiliar—the MS St. Louis was a ship containing over six hundred mostly-German, mostly-Jewish passengers fleeing a fledgling Nazi Germany. Though the ticketholders held valid Cuban visas, by the time the ship arrived, the visas had been used as a political tool and were cancelled, through no fault of the ship’s occupants. Cuba and the United States ultimately turned them away. The ship’s passengers wound up unloading in Belgium, France, and the UK. Many of the Jews aboard the ship were later rounded up as Germany invaded France and Belgium, with many perishing in concentration camps. Josef was a fictional passenger on this ship.

For many years in the modern era, particularly in the nineties, many Cubans fled their home countries in search of a better life—a life with enough food and education for their children. The “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” rule, in place until very recently, essentially held that if a Cuban was picked up at sea (with wet feet), he or she would be returned to Cuba via Guantanamo Bay. If the refugee made it to the coast of Miami—had “dry feet” when caught, he or should would be granted amnesty. Thousands upon thousands fled, with an untold (large) number drowning on the way. Isabel is one such child, fleeing Cuba in a ramshackle boat held together with string and chewing gum.

The current Syrian refugee crisis is one of the largest refugee crises of the modern era, with over thirteen million Syrians displaced, including five million outside of the country. Mahmoud tells the story of one such boy whose family chose to take the risk and leave, walking, swimming, and nearly drowning their way through Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany.

Everything is Connected
As is common with a book like this, you begin to realize that the stories are connected—both in theme as well as with tangential characters. I won’t say more about the characters because I don’t want to spoil that part. From reading, however, I kept having a line from Ecclesiastes come back to me—“There is nothing new under the sun.” The current Syrian refugee crisis is nothing the world has not seen before. The question is whether we will behave better this time—when the modern MS St. Louis comes to our shorts, teeming with Syrian refugees, will we do better this time? Or will we send them back to almost certain death? I am afraid, with the current political climate and the most recent iteration of the travel ban, that we are headed to a repeat of history. History does not look kindly upon those who turned away the MS St. Louis, and I do not see how it will look kindly upon us for these failures.
Middle Grade Books
I typically struggle a bit with middle-grade books since they don’t tend to hold my attention. Thematically, I usually enjoy books with a bit more struggle than is appropriate for the typical middle-grade book. Language and writing are also vital for a book to hold my interest. Middle grade can thus rarely fully capture me—which is fine; these books aren’t really made for me.

With that said, I had no such struggles with Refugee. Though the language stayed on-grade for middle-grade readers, it held my attention and I fairly well devoured this one. The day after I finished, I recommended it to a coworker as a book he could read with his son, since it would capture both of their interests. This is considered a young YA or mature Middle-Grade book and would thematically be a bit much for the younger end of the YA spectrum.

Gratz includes a lengthy author’s note with his sources and explanations of how he developed certain characters (For example, Josef’s father is an amalgam of two actual passengers on the MS St. Louis).  While I am not usually a fan of white authors telling the stories of people of color (as Mahmoud and Isabel are), Gratz seems to have taken pains to ensure accuracy and to be culturally respectful.

Additional Recommended Reading
I read this book for the Diverse Books Club books this month. Other books in the “flight” of books included Inside Out & Back Again and Music of the Ghosts. I loved the first and the review is here. I’m starting the second this week and can’t wait to dive in—it is set in Cambodia when people were fleeing the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know enough about the time in history and reading accurate historical fiction is one of my favorite ways to begin to learn more.

I also highly recommend Exit West—It is still my favorite book of the year so far and would have received a glowing, five-star review on this blog if I hadn’t read it several months before actually starting to write these reviews. Though the country is unnamed, the crisis so closely mirrors Syria as to essentially clearly be about the current crisis. Exit West raises interesting scenarios—in Refugee and in history, the US was able to turn away the MS St. Louis. Countries like the US are still able to turn away current Syrian refugees, while countries within the contiguous EU are currently trying to control the flood. In Exit West, doors appear to take refugees across borders. By going through a door, they are suddenly in London, San Francisco, etc.  Exit West imagines a world were we have to live with and address refugees who cannot be kept out.

Published July 25, 2017 by Scholastic Press (@scholasticinc)
Author: Alan Gratz
Date read: October 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars, in the running for top five books of the year

Review: Reader Recommends over on TST

In lieu of one book review today, I’m over on Top Shelf Text discussing one recent love and three classic loves that I’ll read over and over.

Huge thank you to Madeleine Riley for hosting me on her site.  And the timing couldn’t have been better–I meant to post a book review this Thursday but the food poisoning I picked up Tuesday night had other plans.

Have thoughts on the four books I chose?  I’d love to hear them!

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled.

Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course, she’d had to give up a few things here and there….Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

Remember, Mia had said: Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.

Once Burned…
I almost didn’t pick up Little Fires Everywhere because I felt so burned by Ng’s first novel—Everything I Never Told You, which I read earlier this year. I loved Ng’s writing style and “complicated family” is a theme I will eat up. I appreciated the struggle she set up for Lydia and her mother, Marilyn. In that book, you know immediately that Lydia is dead and you spend the rest of the book backtracking to figure out why. The “why” is revealed in the final chapter, at which point I think I threw the book down. I felt manipulated and would rather have had an ambiguous ending where I didn’t know what I happened to Lydia. (As a side note, Everything I Never Told You would probably make a good book club offering precisely because the ending is controversial. I’m not going to recommend it otherwise because my feelings are still hurt; however, it is a book that will generate different opinions and big feelings, perfect for some bookish debate.)

But then Little Fires Everywhere came out and I remembered that even if I was mad at Ng for emotionally dragging me through the lake with Lydia, I really liked her writing style. I also want to make a point to read more authors of color. And she featured characters of color. And it would be nearly impossible for her to set me up for the same kind of disappointment again. So I bit the bullet and used my Book of the Month credit on Little Fires.

Thankfully my book gamble paid off. I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, including the ending this time.

Location, Location, Location
The book is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the first master planned community. While you usually hear of setting talked about as a character when the setting is atmospheric—foggy and wild—Shaker Heights is definitely its own character, though it is as far on the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum as possible from “wild.” Shaker’s identity is defined by rules and boundaries, with strict zoning codes and housing regulations, down to the colors each home within a specific neighborhood could be painted. As one of the characters noted, the founding of Shaker Heights was based on “the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you avoided the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”

Elena Richardson, the mother of four of the five children at the center of the book, has internalized the Shaker way to heart—she has given up on dreams and risk and lived her life solely within the boundaries. She is safe. She is as happy as she thinks she can be. It is against this foil that we meet Mia, wild and free, artist and mother of Pearl (literally). Interestingly, Ng has us met Mia through others—there is no chapter I can recall where Mia really talks about herself. Instead, we discover her character as she interacts with her daughter Pearl as well as Eleana’s daughters Lexie and Izzy. (Indeed, it is precisely Elena’s rules and structure that drives her own daughters to Mia.) We discover Mia’s past as Elena’s discomfort and internal outrage over Mia’s freedom (though Elena wouldn’t call it that) puts her on a destruction course to discover who Mia really is.

While Little Fires Everywhere isn’t a YA book, Ng’s other main characters were strong, well-developed teen characters. I loved Mia’s daughter Pearl—I loved that she was nerdy but was still able to get the guy. Her struggles and navigating of new friendships in town felt believable. She didn’t make all the wrong choices, nor did she make all the right ones—she was a good friend to some but made some choices that hurt others. She was an internally diverse enough character that there was something in her that it seems most readers could identify with—nerdy, shy, had friends, got the guy, hurt some people, had a complicated but loving relationship with her mother.

Eleana’s two daughters are opposites—Lexie is the high-achieving rule-follower in her mother’s mold while Izzy once tried to free all the cats at the Humane Society and gave all of the not-black clothing her mother bought her to the homeless the next day. This seems to be the way of things—kids respond to (overly) rigid boundaries in two main ways—some kids kill themselves to meet the standards while others chafe and rage against them. Yet here too, they are each believable characters—Ng does an excellent job making them multi-dimensional and not just tropes. While Izzy has been drawn to Mia from the start, when Lexie falls short of the standard, it is Mia to whom she turns, not Elena.

Under the main story line revolving around Elena and Mia is a subplot surrounding the termination of parental rights of a young, uneducated, poor Chinese woman and a rich white couple desperate to adopt the baby. Through existing friendships, Elena and Mia are pulled into this conflict on opposite sides, with the teenagers also splitting to take sides. This subplot, while creating conflict that enables Ng to flesh out Elena and Mia’s characters even more and set up conflict with the teen characters, also provides opportunities to make still salient points about race.

The lawyer for the Chinese mother Bebe scores points in court by pointing out that there are no Asian dolls in the rich couple’s house, though the reader also learns that this is because major companies like Matell have done a terrible job at representing anything other than the “norm” of whiteness.

Elena is able to think she is open-minded and not racist because she “doesn’t see race” which is another common completely unhelpful thing white people say.  By not “seeing race,” Elena and the rich couple aren’t being good and charitable; they’re destroying part of the child’s identity. Whether you see race or not, it’s there. The question is whether the present diversity is recognized and celebrated rather than ignored, like a dirty little secret no one talks about. Elena is able to pat herself on the back for this and think she has no problem with race when it’s clear she does—she has a problem with anything that doesn’t follow the rules and highlights difference.

Shaker Heights itself also can’t have a problem with race since the town officially embraced integration, refused to allow racial covenants, and prevented white flight. Yet, even for all of this, we’re still told that Bebe’s lawyer was one of two Asians in his class and was expected to marry her by all his classmates since they “match.” While Ng’ first novel (set in the 70s) had more overt anti-Asian racism, Little Fires Everywhere features the microaggressions and assumptions still present today. While the tiki torches of Charlottesville have demonstrated that overt racism is clearly still alive and well, books like Little Fires Everywhere show us what “benevolent racism” still looks like in most places, even the most perfect of places.

While not as frequent as the commentary on racism, one of the other points Ng makes that hit home for me was about Elena’s “benevolence”—how she forced people to accept philanthropy they would rather not accept. So often, its easy for me as a well-educated white woman to think I know what is best and to thus foist myself onto someone, thinking I’ve solved the problem without listening or having the person themselves weigh in on what they actually need. Like discarded t-shirts in a third world country, benevolence is often far more about the giver than the receiver. Not terribly surprising, either, is the fact that Elena keeps score. Does it really count as benevolence if you’re always waiting for the opportunity to cash in on the favors you’ve forced people to accept over the years?

Writing Style
I love Ng’s writing style–it’s not overly flowery or showy (she refers to the fires set in the house as looking like they had been set by a “demented Girl Scout” who had been camping in the house), but you can tell Ng has honed her craft to find just the right words. The writing is relatable but polished, falling cleanly into the LitFic category as opposed to simply contemporary fiction.  (Of course Amazon has it categorized as Women’s Fiction —what does this even mean?!?).   Compared to the first novel, Ng’s writing seems to have found a more solid footing—she seems confident of her voice and so Little Fires Everywhere felt like a stronger read to me. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with next.

Published September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press (@penguinpress)
Author: Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)
Date read: October 8, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Hindsight // Foresight October 9, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

A Kind of Freedom slowed me down and I wound up shelving it for the time being, though I plan to go back to it.  As a result, the only book I actually finished this week was Little Fires Everywhere.  I started Young Jane Young last night–not a style I love but I do think I’ll like the overall message and themes, plus its the MMD book club, so I’m plugging away.


I picked up the Diverse Books Club YA pick — Refugee–this week from the library but am otherwise waiting on several holds.  I snagged Swimming Lessons and Men We Reaped (Jesmyn Ward’s memoir) on ebook sale this week, along with free samples from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Best American Series.”

In the most exciting news, I won an ARC of Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia that comes out in March–I had a pretty bad two days and then discovered it on my front doorstep with no notice on Friday.  Funny how a good book can turn a day around.

Foresight for the coming week

I should finish YJY this week since I’ll need to return it before I leave.  I’ll likely also try to finish Refugee so that I don’t have any library books needing to be returned when I get back since I’m going out of town Saturday for a week to see my parents.  I anticipate it being a very good reading week since there isn’t a ton to do when I’m there except thrift/book shop (which I love, but doesn’t take nine days) so I do a lot of reading–I think I averaged a book a day when I was there last.  Hoping to make a dent in those expired library books I have in my airplane-moded Kindle–American Fire, Sour Heart, Crossing to Safety, and Music of Ghosts (for Diverse Books Club).  Debating whether to use room in my suitcase to take some books with me that I need to read, like Station Eleven and I Was Anastasia.  I’ve also got some digital ARCs–The Floating World being the one I’m excited about that is coming out this month.


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

Review: The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh

Here’s to the person you might have been, and to the person you have become. May they never meet in a dark alley.

Welcome to the town of Ceasura (a.k.a. “The Blinds”)—a forgotten spot in west Texas, home to criminals and innocents, all of whom have had the memories of what they did and what they know wiped. Here is where the undesirables are hidden, those who made the Faustian bargain to sell their memories to save their skins. The town is puttering along just fine with this group of criminals and innocents—though no one knows which is which—intermingling in relative peace and isolation until one of their own is murdered. With no one in or out, the killer must be among them. The murder also invites the outside world in—something that hasn’t happened in eight years. As the crime is investigated, the foundation upon which the town was built starts to crumble—after all, if everyone is a former criminal, it could be anybody and nobody’s safe.

The Cost
If you could chose to forget the worst things you did—the ways in which you hurt others—would you? While it may be better for society that some (most) of these people aren’t out and about committing crimes anymore, I really had to question this cost. In many cases, before the “technique” was refined, the removal of memory resulted in the removal of far more than just the memory of the crimes the town’s inhabitants committed or witnessed. Is it worth the cost of forgetting who you are in exchange for forgetting what you did? I suspect most of us would say “no,” but then most of my readers (…I assume) are not serial murders.

Nature vs. Nurture
When their crimes were removed from their memories, interestingly, so were many of the criminal proclivities—this is true for all but one person, though for reasons that become clear s/he was left with those proclivities for a reason. Towards the end of the book, as things in The Blinds start to unravel, you discover who some of the town’s occupants really are and what their crimes were. Many of the crimes are the sort where there was an internal motivation—a want, a need, a proclivity—that you wouldn’t think would be totally uprooted simply by removing the memories of the crimes. And yet, life in the Blinds has been, until very recently, pretty crime-free. Though not the main thrust of this book, this choice has interesting implications for the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. If your proclivity towards a crime was removed with the memories, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that crime/criminal motivations are the result of Nurture—so that they can be uprooted? If they’re Nature, then they’re inborn and mere removal of memory wouldn’t remove the natural hardwiring of the brain. Tied then to the larger theme, you have implications for the value of human life—if you could remove criminal proclivity along with the memory of crime, then no life is beyond repair, no life is irredeemable, no matter the crime.

The Value of Human Life
It’s rare that a suspense book inspires deep philosophical debate and yet, here we are. In setting up Ceasura the way he did, Sternberg invites the reader to consider larger questions about the value of human life and the way it is measured. As the roots of The Blinds are exposed, the reader learns the forgotten/removed crimes of some of the town’s inhabitants—and they are exactly as bad and as heinous as they could be—there’s a child pornographer, a torturer for hire. Sternbergh deliberately chose crimes for which there is no sympathy. But here is the slippery slope—as I discovered who some of the occupants were, my bent was to show no mercy and not to mourn if bad things happened to these people. But if I don’t mind bad things happening to these people, where do we draw that line? Who decides who gets to die? Is any crime truly deserving of death? Does it change the evaluation if the person has no memory of the crime and has not done anything since?

I don’t want a philosophical debate, I just want a suspense novel
While I tend to overthink everything (as the previous paragraphs likely demonstrate), The Blinds is also an excellent book as a pure suspense novel. Because no one knows who they are, there are several mini revelations and twists in the book—some are more obvious than others, but all seemed to me to be fairly well done. The premise is certainly unique, the villain(s) interesting (though who the villain(s) are is really up for debate if almost everyone is a criminal….but I digress). The writing is tight, the characters believable with individual personalities, even with everyone being somewhat of a blank slate. The book was well-paced so I never felt like I had to push through at any point—from the beginning it was engaging. I would go so far as to say it’s my favorite suspense novel so far this year.

Who would you be?
One of the fun little details in the book is that everyone chooses a new name from two lists when they first arrive. One name from a classic Hollywood star (recognizable) and Vice Presidents (“What’s more forgettable than a vice president?”). This fun little detail invites the reader to think about what they would name themselves. Should anyone come looking for me in The Blinds, they can ask for Audrey Biden.

Published August 1, 2017 by Ecco (@eccobooks), an imprint of HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Adam Sternbergh
Date read: October 1, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 stars

Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Best Kind of People in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to LibraryThing, Ballantine Books, and Zoe Whittall for the advance copy.

The Best Kind of People

When someone is your husband or father, that’s simply who they are. You don’t stop to question too much about them unless you’re given reason to, and they’d never been given reason to.

George Woodbury, beloved teacher and literal school savior after stopping a would-be shooter several years before, has just been accused of sexually assaulting several high school students on a school ski trip. The Best Kind of People follows George’s family—his wife Joan, a local nurse; his son Andrew, who escaped the small town several years before; and his daughter Sadie, still a student at the high school. While delving into the victim-blaming and misogyny inherent in these cases, The Best Kind of People largely focuses on George’s family and the choices they make to survive.

One of Those Books
While it’s not the kind of thing anyone in their right mind daydreams about, having a close friend or spouse accused of this kind of crime is the kind of thing I think most people assume they know how they’d react to. I’d go so far as to say the comment threads on online news articles are proof of this—everyone has an opinion and everyone knows which side they’d be on if this were their life. In The Best Kind of People, Whittall takes that sense of reader righteousness and crumbles it all to pieces. There are no easy answers, characters waffle (understandably) on whether they should stand by their husband/father or not and make some bad choices. If the comment threads in news articles are black and white, The Best Kind of People is the spectrum of real-life grey in the middle.

Character Development
While his choices start the book, overall George is a minor character—Whittall makes it clear that he’s charming but doesn’t spend enough time on him to charm the reader. The main characters in the book are Joan and Sadie, with Andrew as a supporting character. With that said, though Whittall doesn’t come out and say one way or the other and the evidence is relatively sparse in the early chapters, my bent was to assume George did it. There are several girls who have nothing to gain from this kind of attention, combined with little things that Whittall includes that just feel…off. Whittall deliberately sets this up as the starting point—the reader is primed to assume George did, in fact, attempt to assault these girls. It is with this foundation that Whittall slowly reveals Joan and Sadie to us.

The easy way to go would be to encourage pity for Joan, to act like her sister Clara and tell her to leave George immediately. Yet, Joan struggles with leaving George. There are financial considerations on top of their twenty-plus years of life together. She has literally slept next to this man for more than twenty years and woke up to discover he was apparently never who she thought he was. The cheap score here would be for Joan to be simply two-dimensional—poor Joan still standing by her man or fiery Joan leaving scorched earth behind her in her attempt to leave. Instead, Whittall shows her struggle—she is alternately weak and strong, making choices that I don’t think I would make but that make sense in the moment (and maybe I would if I ever found myself in that horrifying place). The audience connects with Joan—cheers with Joan, cries with Joan. I would go so far as to say she has nearly universal appeal—the reader is invited to identify with Joan.

I couldn’t decide whether to hug or strangle Sadie at times, which probably means that Whittall did a fairly accurate job in rendering an American teenager. Sadie seems to have it all together, yet there are little indications, even before the accusations against her father, that Sadie isn’t entirely alright beneath the surface. While I identified more with Joan, I wanted the best for Sadie—she tugged at my heart. I knew Joan would be ok, but I was never sure about Sadie and held my breath for her until the end.

The oldest child, Andrew, is featured far less than Joan and Sadie but his inclusion adds more layers to the crimes committed by his father. The reader discovers early that Andrew himself was in an inappropriate relationship at 17 with his 25 year old coach. It’s clear that George’s crimes are not even the slightest morally ambiguous…but what about Andrew’s relationship with his coach? I have my opinion, but here too, is another question Whittall builds into her book. George is clearly on the wrong side of the line…but where is the line?

“Liberal Bias”
Besides the subject matter—which might generally be too triggering for some—the only “turn off” I could identify in the book was a bit of bias. The Woodbury family from the beginning is fairly liberal—the family would seem to universally identify as feminist (though George’s membership card is being revoked immediately) and Andrew is gay, with no real issue with his parents on that point. The family fits the stereotype of moneyed New Englanders. This isn’t terribly obnoxious in and of itself—it adds a layer of conflict for this to be a family that would otherwise believe the victim in this scenario and I appreciated the nuance this choice gave to the book.

The only place this “bias” feels like more than simply a character-development choice is with the inclusion of the “Mens’ Rights” group and the talk about them. When the Woodbury case gains attention, the Mens’ Rights vermin come crawling from their little holes and basements to support George—a development Joan can’t stand. In discussing their ridiculous propaganda in favor of her husband (even as she stands by his side), Joan makes a comment about people in the ring wing having “low IQs.” The comment is in line with Joan’s character and it’s a comment made in the privacy of her home to her teenage daughter; however, I can see it being a touch too far for some readers since it is the only thing that feels like a personal attack on a belief a reader might identify with….Though conservative readers may not make it deep enough into the book to find this comment since the feminism and homosexuality might have turned them off well before this point.

The book does go through the result of the trial of the criminal charges as well as provide a resolution for Andrew, Sadie, and Joan. Each of the endings feels true—while this is not the only way for the book to have ended, these are realistic choices these characters would have made when faced with the totality of the circumstances.

Because of the moral ambiguity in some of the character’s choices (not George’s—that’s not morally ambiguous) and the quietly decisive but arguably controversial way the book ends, this book would make an excellent book club selection—I suspect people will have some opinions about the last few chapters. I also think it’s the kind of book that is going to be somewhat polarizing, giving the group a good mix of opinions on the family member’s choices—everything from Joan’s standing by/not standing by George, to Joan’s parenting choices, to Sadie’s lifestyle choices (literally—not using that as a euphemism), to Andrew’s youthful romance.

Overall, this was the kind of book I love—tightly written, politically/socially relevant, character-driven, complicated families, and morally ambiguous at times. I highly recommend for anyone who can handle these topics without being triggered.

Published September 19, 2017 by Ballantine Books
Author: Zoe Whittall (@zoe_whittall)
Date read: September 27, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars