Tag: BookReview

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

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“I’m not allowed to use the internet without an adult,” I say
“Right, I remember,” says Larry. “Why won’t your parents let you?”
“Because Gloria is on the internet.”
“Who’s Gloria?”
“Gloria is my Birth Mom. I used to live with her.”
Then I stop talking.
“Is she easy to find?” says Larry.
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “I tried to find her three times on the internet when I was in different Forever Homes but I kept getting interrupted.”
“What’s her name again?” says Larry….
I lean forward and look at him sideways over the top of my glasses. I push my hair out of my face but it falls back. I wish I had a scrunchie. “Gloria LeBlanc,” I say. It’s been a long time since I said the name LeBlanc with my mouth. Because that is what my name used to be. It’s like I left the original me behind when I came to live with my new Forever Parents. With Brian and Maura Moon. My name is Ginny Moon now but there are still parts of the original me left.

Synopsis
Ginny Moon is a 14 year-old girl with autism, adopted by her Forever Parents after being removed from Gloria, her Birth Mother who neglected her. No one seems to care that when Ginny was removed from Gloria, her Baby Doll was left behind and Ginny needs to care for her Baby Doll. When no one will help her find her Baby Doll, Ginny has no choice but to try to find her herself. Unfortunately, Ginny’s search for her Baby Doll means she has to make some choices that are Not Safe, risking her place in her Forever Family’s home.

Representation & Characters
I loved Ginny. This book is written to make you root for her, even when she is making what seem to be awful choices. In my experience, Ludwig’s sensitive portrayal of Ginny’s autism is fairly accurate. She isn’t presented as representative of all individuals with autism and she isn’t a Rain Man-esque savant. She is simply concrete and literal, though Ludwig gives you Ginny’s interior voice so you know why she is making the choices she is making. Knowing the why and how she got from point A to point B in her thinking made it so that I could identify with her, even though I’m not a person that the autism spectrum myself.

Along with the concrete thinking, she keeps the rules that make logical sense and violates the ones that don’t. She doesn’t abide by many social conventions—not because she doesn’t value the people involved but simply because the conventions don’t make sense in light of Ginny’s end game. I particularly appreciated that Ludwig portrayed a girl with autism, since the majority of the stories that seem to be out there with characters with autism feature boys.

Ginny’s Forever Mom and Forever Dad raised Big Feelings for me. Forever Dad is trying his best. While even he does not take the time or consider the source of Ginny’s anxiety over her Baby Doll, he is willing to spend more energy and time accommodating and meeting Ginny’s needs. Forever Mom on the other hand, was infuriating. Admittedly, her suggestions of institutionalizing Ginny may have made me hate her more than was directly called for—part of my job is working to get people out of institutions and set up with the services and supports they need to be successful in their communities. I’m sure Maura was frustrated and Ginny did do things that, when you didn’t understand the full context (as Forever Mom didn’t) seemed like Ginny didn’t care about her Forever Family and wouldn’t be safe around the baby who was on the way. But Forever Mom also refused to listen to the counselor and wanted to send Ginny away. So I still feel ok about disliking her as a person.

While he is a minor character, I also want to mention Ginny’s friend Larry. I loved that Ludwig included Larry—that he cares for Ginny, that he is a friend for Ginny, and that he even seems to have a crush on Ginny. People with disabilities are far too often presented as if they are asexual or unable to be the objects of real desire and so just presenting a teenager with a crush on a girl with autism made me want to stand up and cheer.

Mood
I can honestly say that never before has a book inspired such feelings of anxiety. I listened to Ginny Moon on audiobook and the feeling of growing tension about choices Ginny is making filled me with dread and anxiety the further I went into the book. As the reader, you can see the train wreck that’s building—Ginny reaches out to Gloria. Gloria begins to contact Ginny. Ginny makes choices to try to get back to Gloria and her Baby Doll. Each of the series of choices Ginny makes has worse possible consequences than the one before and you’re cringing as you read, waiting to see what will happen, hoping something will interrupt the coming course of events.

I found myself torn between not being able to stop listening, needing to know what came next and pausing the book because I couldn’t handle the tension and oh my god, Ginny this is a bad idea and why aren’t you listening to what Ginny is saying! If you would listen to Ginny, she wouldn’t be making unsafe choices. THIS IS UNSAFE.

With that said, this was the Diverse Books Club pick last year when we were looking at disabilities and I know more than one Highly-Sensitive Person who read and thought this book was amazing.   Don’t let the anxiety it produces scare you away from reading it. Just know ahead of time that it is a book that you may need to take breaks from if you’re an HSP. And if you’ll pardon the spoiler, Ginny is alive and healthy at the end of the book, in case knowing that makes it easier to read.

Minor Criticism
The only detail that really threw me off was the inclusion of Larry in the SpEd classroom. Unless I missed something, Ginny’s friend Larry has a physical disability that requires him to use crutches but does not have any kind of cognitive deficits associated with his disability. While many schools do not treat the SpEd kids well or provide all needed services; in my experience, a kid with solely physical disabilities wouldn’t be put into the self-contained classroom like this. There would be no reason Larry can’t participate in a mainstream classroom, with physical accommodations like seating closer to a door and more time to get to class. The inclusion of Larry in Ginny’s class was necessary for him to be able to aid and abet her in things like using the internet; however, it felt odd throughout for me that he was in the classroom at all.

Recommended
Ginny Moon is well-written with a distinct narrator that makes the book an anxiety-producing joy to read. It’s a book that will draw Big Feelings from you and is a book that would do well with a book club since Ginny’s choices, as well as those of her family, would make good fodder for discussion. (At least some of the reviews on Goodreads are pretty negative—while I disagree with these, the best kind of book club books are the ones people disagree about.)

The themes and reading level of the book, while aimed at adults, are well within the grasp of older teens and so this would also be a book I recommend for young adults that enjoy some non-YA fiction. Indeed, reading well-written books with diverse characters, including characters with disabilities, can only be beneficial. I honestly believe that one of the ways I’ve developed into a more empathetic person over time (besides having a close friend who got a degree in counseling) is by fiction that presents a diversity of voices and viewpoints. Everyone is equal at the library checkout counter.

Notes
Published: May 1, 2017 by Park Row Books
Author: Benjamin Ludwig
Date read: November 17, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon


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“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.”

Synopsis
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.

Kindness
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.

Relationships
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.

Writing
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.

Notes
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

Review: Beartown by Fredrick Backman


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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.

Synopsis
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.

Writing
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.

Notes
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: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin


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

Synopsis
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.

Structure
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.

Recommended
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?

Notes
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


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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.

Synopsis
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.

Recommended
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.

Notes
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


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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.

Synopsis
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.

Writing
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).

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

Review: Refugee by Alan Gratz


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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.

Synopsis
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.

Accuracy
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.

Notes
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: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


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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.”

Characters
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.

Race
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.

Benevolence
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.

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

Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall


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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.

Synopsis
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.

Conclusion
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.

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