Tag: AlgonquinBooks

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

All around Roy were shards of a broken life, not merely a broken heart. Yet who could deny that I was the only one who could mend him, if he could be healed at all? Women’s work is never easy, never clean.

On the night Roy and Celestial decide to try for a baby, Roy is arrested and wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Roy and Celestial find themselves looking at a twelve-year sentence only eighteen months into their marriage. As Roy lives behind bars, life—and his marriage—moves on without him. When Roy finds himself suddenly released early, he sets off home to find out what, if anything, remains of his and Celestial’s marriage.

Jones did an excellent job introducing Roy and fleshing out his character. Of the three viewpoints in An American Marriage (Roy, Celestial, and their friend Andre), he was the only character I felt I really knew. Even the viewpoints of the other characters seemed mostly to serve to introduce Roy to the reader. When Andre visits Roy’s father to pick Roy up from prison, I didn’t learn anything in particular about Andre; rather, I saw Roy through his father’s eyes. Saw the sacrifices that allowed Roy Jr. to leave his small town, to try to become the man he wanted to be. I met Roy through the dialect of the people where he grew up in Louisiana, through Celestial and her family that adopts him in Atlanta.

I don’t feel the same about Celestial, though my sense that I don’t now her comes as a contrast to Roy since I felt he was so deeply introduced. Her chapters seemed to try to give an introduction to who Celestial was, particularly when interacting with her father and Roy’s and Andre’s chapters gave an outside view of her…but I was left feeling like I didn’t know Celestial nearly as well as I knew Roy, and I wanted to. The book doesn’t read as if it is about one main character, but rather that the Marriage and its participants are the focus. And yet, I was left hanging with Celestial—unconnected to her as a character, not engaged with her and the choices she was making. In some ways, it seemed Celestial didn’t truly know herself and her actions reflected this. However, if the point was that Celestial didn’t’ know herself, this made it awfully difficult to introduce her to a reader and to make a reader care for her. It was ultimately a lopsided marriage and while the writing may have been making this point, it didn’t feel like a deliberate choice not to round out Celestial. In some ways, I even felt like I knew Andre better than I knew Celestial and he was the most peripheral of the three characters.

Two related themes in An American Marriage struck me in particular and made this book both a good and a hard read. The first, admittedly obvious point, is that being an African American (particularly an African American man) in this country (particularly but not exclusively in the South) has inherent danger. No matter how far you have climbed, how upright and moral you are, the color of you skin alone places you in suspicion. When circumstances are right (or wrong), the color of your skin alone can land you in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. It’s easy to think that Roy’s story in An American Marriage is just a story, based around a plotline that is far-fetched. And yet, the wrongful convictions of four African-American and one Hispanic youth in the Central Park Jogger case and the wrongful conviction of African-American football player Brian Banks belie the idea that wrongful convictions of people of color still happen.

The second was a question about how far from your roots you can ever really grow. On the one hand, Celestial’s father was a chemistry teacher who discovered a synthetic substance that made the family millions when the patent was sold. He’s a black man who was able to raise himself up from what seemed to be lower-middle to middle-middle class in Atlanta to richy-rich, though he still chose to live on the black side of town. His choice to remain on the black side of town, having bought a mansion from a white family who was too nervous to continue to live there (it being a black neighborhood), raises questions about how far success can take a black family. They could have lived anywhere. But would they have been safe? You can see the Davenport choice to stay in the neighborhood as staying where they are comfortable. You can also see it as an example of staying safe—choosing to limit their success so that the family is successful in ways that stay palatable (re: largely unseen) to white Atlanta. Similarly, when Celestial gains a following making dolls as art, she’s Ebony famous. Her store is in an area where it is accessible to Black Atlantians with money but not in the Black part of town where whites would feel uncomfortable shopping.

Where the Davenports have had their success constrained by white senses of propriety, Roy’s life has the greatest constraints. Roy grew up poor in Louisiana. He went to Morehouse, got a job with upward mobility, and scrapped and hustled. He was on the come-up. Until he was Black at the wrong place in the wrong time and his Morehouse degree and cufflinks didn’t matter one whit to a mostly white jury in Louisiana.

The idea of this—that skin color alone can make you vulnerable, can cost you years of your life and health—is so abhorrent that we would rather pretend it isn’t possible than deal with the idea that this happens to people. And, as Roy’s and Celestial’s marriage shows, even if you’ve been freed, even if you’ve been set “right,” there is no getting back what that wrongful conviction took. Roy and Celestial can’t get those five years back—there were life events Roy missed in prison that he doesn’t get the chance to re-experience. The marriage suffers, with Roy in prison three times longer than they were married to start with. One of the wrongful convictions I mentioned earlier was of football player Brian Banks—before his false accusation, he was a rising football star. By the time he made it out of prison several years later and was exonerated, it was over five years later. He was signed to an NFL team but never made it off the practice squad.

While the reader is left with the question of what Roy might have been, there are real Roys—there are Brians, there are the Central Park Five—walking around, unable to get those five, six, ten years inside back.

And indeed, the life inside changes Roy, as it must inevitably change anyone who spends any amount of time there.   My job affords me access to see prisoners in jail in their pods, so I have seen jail life closer up than most people have outside of watching Orange is the New Black. It is not any place I would want to spend any amount of time. And yet, I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what five years in actual prison must be like. Roy leaves with physical scars (as does Celestial, a remnant of police treatment during Roy’s arrest) as well as psychological ones—the result of becoming responsible for something inside that he didn’t understand until it was too late.

In this way, the damage done to Roy and Celestial’s marriage feels almost inevitable. Marriage changes you, but in theory its changing both of you in ways that mean you can grow and change together. Roy’s incarceration changes Roy and Celestial in ways that seem impossible to mend.

An American Marriage is, overall, strongly written with alternating first-person viewpoints from the three characters, along with sections of letters between characters. Because the characters are mostly speaking to each other or to other African Americans, there is no need to code-switch in their speech so Jones doesn’t have them speaking white. At the same time, the language is clear enough for a white audience to read without feeling terribly out of the loop. It’s a fine line but (as far I can tell as a white woman) it’s a line Jones walks well to stay realistic for her Black audience but not alienating of a non-Black audience.

I picked An American Marriage for my BOTM pick for February a few days before Oprah announced it as her Book Club selection. I can see why she chose it—it is a powerful book that can have mass appeal. With that, I know people for whom that Oprah sticker would be a turn-off. Even for those highbrow folks, An American Marriage is worth a read. The writing is strong, even poignant at times, with relevant and important themes, and a character that stays with you even after you close the book. I finished several days ago and I still find myself hoping Roy—with all of his flaws and sometimes cocksure personality—found happiness after the book ended.

Published: February 6, 2018 by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Tayari Jones (@tayari)
Date read: February 25, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

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 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