Tag: Fiction

Review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Note: I drafted this post before the decision issued yesterday in Trump v. Hawaii upholding the Muslim ban.  I enjoyed A Place For Us and felt it was relevant when I finished it almost a month ago–today it feels even more relevant.  No matter what the president and the courts have said, Muslims have a place in this country.  This is our generation’s Korematsu and I hope that we feel shame over it sooner rather than later.  If you are of the Muslim faith or from an immigrant family and have stumbled upon this blog, hear me say clearly that you are wanted here.  <3

I received a digital ARC of this book from SJP for Hogarth on NetGalley. I’m grateful to SJP for Hogarth for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

And it is in these moments that the fabric of my life reveals itself to be an illusion: thinking that I am free, we all are, that we could grow around your loss like a tree that bends around a barrier or wound. That I do not need to see you again. That the reality of our life as it is now is the best that we could have done and the best we could have hoped for.

Synopsis
Set on the day of an oldest sister’s wedding, A Place For Us, introduces the reader to a Muslim Indian-American family whose estranged youngest son has returned for the celebration. Though A Place For Us, Mirza explores themes of one’s place within a family, a family’s place within a community, and a Muslim and Indian community’s place within 21st Century American society. Told in shifting narratives through the decades leading to the wedding, A Place For Us shines as a deeply relevant, debut novel.

Structure
A Place for Us bounces around in time, which will drive some readers a little crazy, though Mirza writes within this structure as well as it can be done. The modern starting point is older sister Hadia’s wedding, for which Amar has come home for the first time in years. We’re told he’s been gone; from there the book flashes back in time to show us why and what it took for him to come home today.   There is no date headers/signpost when the timeline changes—the narrative simply shifts and you determine through what people are talking about how many years forward or backward you are within the children’s lives. This could be really confusing, but in Mirza’s hands, it’s as clean and clear as it can be. She has major events in the children’s lives as signposts that come up fairly quickly. These events and/or comments about the children’s ages or school grade are peppered in early within new sections so you can quickly place it within the narrative.

This has the effect of making the narrative read like a puzzle—you can pretty clearly understand the piece in your own hand and with a little study, you can see where it goes. Each piece makes you form one idea as you read and that idea is confirmed or changed when another character’s point of view and experience appear several vignettes later.

The other thing that helps this structure be less jarring is that the book is told in third person by an omniscient narrator so you can tell when the perspective shifts to another character and who that person is. Several perspectives and times appear within most chapters so when Mirza shifts time and person, there is a paragraph break and symbol that indicates a change so you know you need to be looking for a different time and character. I enjoy when authors use non-linear timelines; just be warned this structure (in addition to the themes and content) make this book one that does require a little more energy and focus to really dig into.

Character Development
The bouncing in time reveals different characters to varying extents. The early chapters are heavy on Hadia and Layla, the three children’s mother. The center picks up more with Amar and the ending is almost entirely Rafiq, the father.

At its heart, A Place For Us is about Amar’s place within the family as much as it is about the place of an Indian Muslim family in modern American society.   It is interesting then that Hadia and Layla are the ones to introduce us to Amar and Rafiq—these two women largely form our opinions of the boy and his father before either of them is allowed to influence our feelings of them much.

Hadia comes across in her own vignettes and others as mostly likeable. She isn’t perfect—she makes (but recognizes) her mistakes. She is perhaps the only character whose presentation didn’t change how I felt about her through the book. Layla’s early chapters make her seem sympathetic; yet later chapters made me reform my opinion. In her efforts to do the best for her children, she does things that hurt them, never really realizing her role in creating the current system of estrangement we have now. You don’t see her mistakes until after you’ve met and been hearing from her for a while, though, so the shift felt like a betrayal—not on the part of Mirza whose writing here is masterful, but by Layla. I trusted her and my trust was broken.

The contrast to this is Rafiq—we don’t meet him on his own terms until the end, when our opinions of him are fully formed by what others have said about him. This gave me the opposite experience of Layla—I hated him, until he had a chance to speak for himself. He is still a deeply flawed man whose choices contributed to where we find our characters today; however, Mirza made me care about him in the end. To go from where we started to wanting the best for him at the end took one hell of a writer and I can’t wait to see where Mirza writes next.

The only odd choice Mirza made in structuring her book and introducing her characters this way is that it feels we never really meet Huda, the middle child. She is present only in relation to the other children and never the focus of a vignette. She was left only partially formed for me. Other reviewers have noted this as well. She serves a purpose—she was the partner to Hadia, so Amar felt more left out as the third-wheel-child. She also became the most devout, a foil to Hadia’s middle-ish (still religious) path and Amar’s opposite. To an extent then, leaving her out isn’t an option since she has these purposes in the story. But if she is going to be included, it feels like she deserved (and didn’t get) the same characterization as the others.

Finally, Amar. It is hard to talk about Amar and his characterization without giving away plot points that are best left discovered as they come up. I will say that Mirza’s characterization of him made me love him deeply despite his flaws. I could see where Amar was coming from, see how he was (in many ways) a victim of well-intentioned but harmful actions by others, and yet, Amar wasn’t ever fully painted as a victim. He made bad choices for which I felt he was still responsible, but I could see why he made those choices. I loved him most.

Identity
This structure and presentation of characters raised questions of identity that have rarely plagued me as a white woman. I have almost never felt out of place because of my race and have certainly never felt out of place within larger society.

Yet, for this family, there seems to be an unanswerable question about where they belong. September 11th occurs when the children are older—somewhere around middle and high school. They’ve had a relatively peaceful childhood living in an area that has a large Indian Muslim population within a larger white population, so the children have friends in both groups. Within the larger population, the events of September 11th uncover the latent racism of those around them. Amar thought he knew his a place amongst his classmates, only to discover he was wrong. On a micro-level, the family chafes at times with their place with the hierarchical Indian Muslim community. On the individual level, there is the question of how Amar fits within the family—a question everyone tries to pretend isn’t even a question until his piece is gone.

The presentation of the characters and narrative structure also raised questions about the way our identity (as we are perceived by others) is formed. On the one hand, we meet Layla largely through her own explanation of her actions and discover later there is more to the story as others talk about her. Conversely, I formed a (negative) opinion of Rafiq without ever really hearing from him at all in the entire first three-quarters of the book. But then, when I did meet him and could see how the questions of identity colored where he was coming from in in his parenting of Amar and his siblings.

Ending (Very, very mild spoiler)
I suspect that this ending may affect how some readers feel about this book. There’s ambiguous endings and then there’s A Place For Us somewhere a few miles beyond that.

I desperately wanted there to be more to this book. I wanted to keep flipping, to know what happened. For there to be a chance at absolution. And yet, if A Place For Us is to feel authentic, it is hard to imagine a scenario where everything I wished and hoped for these characters could come true. It is a kindness then, that I don’t know. There is a still a chance that all of the members of this family can reconcile. That there can be a place in this world for them together as Indian Muslims and that there can be a place for each of them individually within the family. If the book does not say otherwise, there is hope.

Notes
Published: June 12, 2018 by SJP (@sarahjessicaparker) for Hogarth (@hogarthbooks)
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza (@ffmirza)
Date read: June 2, 2018
Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

I received a digital ARC of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Visible Empire: Epigraphs

Atlanta has suffered her greatest tragedy and loss.
-Mayor Ivan Allen

Many people have been asking, “Well what are you going to do?” And since we know that the man is tracking us down day by day to try and find out what we are going to do, so he’ll have some excuse to put us behind his bars, we call on our God. He gets rid of one hundred twenty of them in one whop…and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.
-Malcom X at the Ronald Stokes Protest in L.A.

Foundation/Synopsis
The foundation of Visible Empire is the 1962 fatal crash of an Air France jet transporting 121 of Atlanta’s art patrons—the wealthy, white, upper-crust of the city. From there, Pittard builds her tale of those left behind—the grieving remainder of the muckety-mucks, the white serving class, and the subjugated black population of the city. From here we meet Roger, grieving the loss of his mistress and parents-in-law; Lily, reeling from the double-yet-different-losses of her parents and Roger; Piedmont, an African-American youth pulled into Robert and Lily’s orbits at a time of upheaval in his own life; and Stacy, a white serving class woman who sees an opportunity and takes it.

Invisible and Visible Empires
The title Visible Empire is actually a nod to the full name of the Ku Klux Klan—the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If the Invisible Empire of the KKK is the shadowy, hooded phantoms that move at night, the overt racism of 1962 Atlanta is the Visible Empire. It is the status quo of wealth and privilege that is ignored until tragedy literally falls from the sky. Black men and women were beaten and died every day in the South in the 1960s and no one batted an eye. Over one hundred white people from Atlanta die, and suddenly the world is watching.

Pittard makes her intentions clear in the quotes she chooses for her Epigraph, including the two quotes I started this review with. The loss is seen as monumental to the city—The New York Times runs articles on this great loss and its impact to the city. In contrast at the time, The New York Times hadn’t once run an article on the massive loss of black life in the city in the preceding years. While most of us see the KKK as extremist and wrong, far fewer examine the status quo of white privilege that sees the loss of one hundred white lives as catastrophic and the poisoning of hundreds of black lives in Flint, Michigan as old news. Visible Empire was set in 1962 but in many regards could be set today.

Characters
The story is presented through a series of alternating character vignettes. Robert is a journalist, embroiled in an affair with a younger colleague who was on the doomed flight. Lily is Robert’s wife, pregnant with her and Robert’s first child, sent reeling at the loss of her parents and her abandonment by Robert. Intersecting with their story is that of Piedmont, an eighteen year-old black youth on the precipice of identity—faced with the choice of whether he will accept the status quo, keep his head down, and stay safe or whether he will stand and fight, link arms with other black men and women in the south saying that they have had enough. Finally there is Stacy, a character whose story is only tangentially connected to the Robert-Lily-Piedmont narrative. Stacy has grown tired of her hardscrabble life, believes she deserves more, and takes an opportunity to impersonate one of the left-behind upper class Atlantians.

Robert
Robert’s character is interesting—when I sat down to describe him, I can only come up with negative descriptors—he’s the epitome of white privilege, married into money, selfish, and willing to throw away everything—and yet—of course!—because he’s white, his bad choice roosters don’t really come home to roost. I should hate him. At times I did. But damn it, Pittard make me want the best for him. There’s something about him that made me want him to stop throwing everything he had away, to stop making bad choices, and to set things right.

Lily
Much like her name, Lily is the pure white character in the book. She’s the virtuous, wronged woman, the woman in need of rescue. While she’s one of the muckety-muck class, her tragedy makes her sympathetic and her treatment of Piedmont shows the reader that she’s not really like one of them. Lily is perhaps the most trope-y of the characters, acting her part as the damsel in distress. When Robert leaves, Lily starts to learn to stand on her own. Though Piedmont quickly enters her life and she gets another man she can lean on. I’m torn on whether I think she ultimately learned to stand on her own or just switched out her men. She’s likeable and it’s clear Pittard made an effort to make her seem independent. I’m just not entirely sure it worked. Where Piedmont became a vehicle to present Lily to the reader, in many ways Lily served that role for Robert. I had no problems with Lily as I was reading and was sympathetic to her and what she was going through; yet the longer I sit with the book, I’m not sure I really got to know her.

Piedmont
Pittard is a white author and I’m a white reader so my ability to analyze the characterization of Piedmont, the only black main character, is limited. With that said, of all the characters, Piedmont seemed the most well-rounded to me and was my favorite character. Where Roger’s wrestling with who he is as a man reeks of privilege and self-pity, Piedmont’s exploration of what it means to be a black man coming of age in 1962 Atlanta seemed real and drew me in. The choices he makes are understandable, though often unwise (so, fairly typical of an eighteen year-old). And yet, as a reader you still root for him. When he stands on his own or interacts with Roger, he is at his strongest. When he interacts with Lily, he faded a bit for me—partially as a consequence of Pittard using his interactions with Lily to provide opportunities for growth for her. I want the best for him and though I recognize he is simply a fictional character, there’s a part of me that hopes wherever he is, he turned out ok.

Stacy
Distinct from the Lily-Robert-Piedmont story line is that of Stacy/Anastasia. I have to admit that I hated her character, though this seems intentional on the part of Pittard. Stacy has a sympathetic enough backstory to give her a likeable dimension, though the choices she makes reveal fairly quickly that her brother’s accusation of her narcissism is accurate. Just when I was at the point of thoroughly hating her, there’s an unexpected twist in her story. She goes from being the con artist to the mark. This created a conundrum for me—I didn’t like her as a character, I felt sorry for her victim; but then these roles shifted. Stacy’s entire storyline, while intersecting with Lily-Robert-Piedmont enough that it didn’t feel entirely disparate, stood alone. It raised questions of who we consider victims and who we consider perpetrators. It introduced a “poor white” element to the story that was otherwise missing within the exploration of rich Atlanta’s relationship with its black population.

My major issue with Stacy’s storyline is the treatment of the two LGBTQ characters who appear in Stacy’s chapters. We are given enough background to see how they came to be the way they are (which isn’t to say how they came to be gay, but how they came to be the kind of people who make the kind of choices they make). Neither is portrayed particularly kindly and both are villains in their own rights—this negative portrayal felt stereotypical to me. An LGBTQ character can absolutely be a villain in your book; however, if you’re going to have negative gay characters, it feels like you should damn well include at least one virtuous one. To Pittard’s credit, everyone in this book is behaving badly except Piedmont and arguably Lily so it’s not like the only evil characters are gay; yet this treatment still felt unbalanced.

Recommended
Ultimately, I do think the point Visible Empire attempts to make is an important one.   The book is well-written and it moves at a good pace—my dislike of Stacy made her chapters feel long at times, though this had more to do with my feelings for the character than it did with missteps in Pittard’s writing. Pittard is obviously skilled at making you feel strongly about her characters—I rooted for Robert while being exasperated with him and thinking he did not deserve my affection. I felt sorry for Stacy at the same time I would never want to actually meet her in real life. Visible Empire isn’t going to make my top ten list for the year but if you are interested in historical fiction and/or books that explore racial themes that still apply, I do think it is worth your time. It is one I would recommend for someone looking for a book that reads a bit lighter in writing style but packs a message and for book clubs, since I think this book will draw a diversity of opinions.

Notes
Published: June 5, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Hannah Pittard (@hannahpittard)
Date read: May 22, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Faith Frank hired me, originally, based on nothing. She took me in and she taught me things, and more than that she gave me permission. I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. -Greer

Synopsis
The Female Persuasion tells the story of Greer Kadetsky whose life turned out nothing like she expected. She was supposed to go to Yale and yet finds herself at the local college, Ryland, where a chance encounter with Faith Frank—feminist icon—changes the trajectory of her life. It is this meeting and subsequent relationship that provides Greer the scaffolding of the life she builds for the next decade, informing who she is as a person, providing her the job that starts perfectly yet leads her to a moral crossroads. Interspersed with Greer’s chapters are stories from her friend Zee, Faith Frank, and boyfriend Cory. In these we see Zee build her own life, independent of both her parents and Greer; how Faith became The Faith Frank; and what it means to love your family and do “women’s work” through Cory. Even without a Trumpian figure, The Female Persuasion explores, with a casual wit, how it feels to live with and navigate through current gender politics.

Conflicted
I listened to the audiobook of The Female Persuasion with conflicted feelings—I found the characters interesting, the dialogue between characters snappy, and the writing fresh. Told from several points of view, The Female Persuasion gave me points I could connect in most of the characters.  I could also understand why the major characters were making the choices they were making—which isn’t to say they made only good choices. Rather, Wolitzer’s characters stayed true to their development such that they made choices consistent with who they were as people. At the same time, I felt this niggling discomfort each time I turned the audio back on in that the book, while engaging, fresh, and snappy, also had a glaring hole in it. The Female Persuasion might more accurately be titled The White Female Persuasion. While this review will be centered around the almost exclusively white lens here, I want to be clear that this is still a book I enjoyed and one I’d read again. I don’t regret the time I spent on this book and the writing style and voice pushed Wolitzer’s prior book, The Interestings, up my TBR list. Because I think it is important to recognize the limitations of works we enjoy, this review will be more negative than usual, particularly for a book that I gave 4 stars. Essentially—this review focuses on what cost The Female Persuasion that last star.

I should also note that there are many people who knew me as recently as five years ago who will find this critique out of place coming from me. To be transparent in where I’m coming from—I’m a relatively recent arrival at the Feminist camp as a refugee from complementarian evangelicalism. I am not well-versed in the scholarship. I’m aware that the concept of intersectionality within feminism was introduced by bell hooks, though I’ve not (yet) read her works. There are things I may get wrong in this review or, more likely, my critique here will be necessarily somewhat surface level—both because I do not have the foundation to make this a true critical analysis and because you’re here to read a book blog, not a ten page seminar paper. I welcome any critique you have—any point you think I’ve missed—as well as any books you think I should read. The only comment that isn’t welcome today is a defense of White Feminism.

Limitations
So why do I feel like the The Female Persuasion is a story limited to a White Feminist perspective? There are, in fact, a few characters of color, though with one exception, they are typically limited to peripheral characters—at Loci for example, Wolitizer mentions at least one woman as being of color but that description is where the representation ends. These women do not engage in any dialogue in the scenes in which they appear that raises any points related to how women of color have experienced injustices differently, how their layers of race and possibly class have made their experiences of sexism different. The only character who could be considered a person of color whose viewpoint is directly presented is Cory—Greer’s boyfriend who is a first-generation American of Portuguese descent. (A quick Google search indicates there’s an ongoing debate about whether people of Spanish and Portuguese descent who are not from Latin America “count” as white or not. I’m not about to wade into this debate. For purposes of this discussion I’ll “count” him as being of color since he is presented as having what is typically considered the immigrant experience—his parents don’t always speak great English and work traditionally menial jobs, like housekeeper. He also changes his name from “Duarte” to “Cory” to sound less ethnic.) Zee is Jewish, though how this might have impacted her experiences with sexism doesn’t really come up.

As I recall, the only place where a person of color comes close to engaging in any kind of discussion about intersectionality is Zee’s African-American coworker, Noelle. When they first meet, Zee is in a Teach-for-America-esque program in Chicago. Noelle is, understandably, skeptical of Zee’s qualifications as well as her commitment. This one section from Zee’s perspective in conversations between these two women is where race becomes a topic. And yet, it is a topic removed from the larger feminist discussion. Zee fits into the larger narrative as a character study of feminism—she is an example of the plethora of Gen-Y woman learning to stand on her own in this “Man’s World.” Her experiences of moving across the country to start something new felt familiar to me, the way it will to many women my age. And yet, the way race is slotted into Zee’s story, it’s done in a way that manages to separate the discussion from Zee’s experiences as a feminist. The introduction of Noelle would have allowed Wolitzer to have even just one character voice what it is like to live as both female and black and yet this never really happened. Zee is the most minor of the major characters and Noelle a missed opportunity within Zee’s development.

My Life On the Road
This omission in The Female Persuasion was made all the more noticeable to me having just finished Gloria Steinem’s autobiography, My Life On the Road. Steinem discusses early in the book travels around India and learning about what community organizing looked like there. When the National Women’s Conference took place in Houston in 1977, she described the efforts expended before and during the conference to make sure that women of color had their experiences and voices heard, including working with various groups within others—for example of Chicanas and Puerto Rican women who both had much in common and unique needs and concerns—to make sure that women of all groups were represented in the compiled list of recommendations made by the conference. Even though I had not listened to The Female Persuasion yet, I was struck over and over by Steinem’s diverse experiences, her insistence on being where the people were, not being the leader, and deliberately including women of diverse backgrounds. While Steinem is by no means perfect, she is generally recognized as having values and positions that are deliberately inclusive of women of color and different classes. Though it started slow, I found her autobiography fascinating and worth the Audible credit.

So then back to The Female Persuasion. As I noted when I started, I enjoyed this book. I could see myself in Greer and Zee (though Faith seemed a watered down feminist icon to me after Gloria).   While the writing wasn’t particularly fancy or “literary,” it was snappy in the way my friends and I are when we get going. And yet, there is this glaring hole. For me, as a white cis-woman, I am not directly harmed by the omission of women of color, except to the extent that only seeing people like me means I’ll never be exposed to stories unlike my own. There isn’t anything that I noticed that was stereotypical or trope-y, women of color just aren’t really there.

Doing Better
And yet, like the catchphrase “silence is violence,” absence is a problem here. It is far too easy as a white female reader to never read a story featuring a woman of color. I can pat myself on the back for being a feminist and enjoying this feminist book and never realize that I’m only imbibing stories of White Feminism. It is easy to purposefully or even inadvertently avoid being exposed to the ways that race and class intersect with gender to make harder for women at these intersections. To an extent then, it is incumbent on writers and artists who produce art that appeals to women, like The Female Persuasion, to intentionally produce diverse works and for publishers to publish and market them. While it was far from a perfect book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things strikes me as a good example here—many of the people who read mass-produced contemporary fiction like Jodi Picoult probably aren’t reading a lot of hard-hitting stories that discuss the ugliness of white supremacy and what it is like to be black today. And yet, Picoult knew she had a platform and Small Great Things was the result.

At the end of the day, I truly enjoyed The Female Persuasion and think it deserves much (if not all) of the hype it is getting. I look forward to seeing what Wolitzer does in the future and hope that in future books, she features more diverse stories and characters.

Notes
Published: April 3, 2018 by Riverhead Books (@riverheadbooks)
Author: Meg Wolitzer (@megwolitzer)
Date read: April 26, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

I received a free version of Rainbirds on CD from Penguin Random House via LibraryThing. I’m grateful to Penguin Random House and LibraryThing for their generosity in providing a copy for me to review. All opinions are my own.

 

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurts you and those around you.”

Synopsis
Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida on his journey to the fictional, remote town of Akakawa in the wake of his sister’s murder. What should be a short trip to wrap up her affairs becomes an escape for Ren—an escape from the expectations and failures of his own relationships in Tokyo and into the life of the sister who hid so much from him over the last decade. Ren stays in Akakawa, taking Keiko’s job and moving into her rooms in a local house. The farther he steps into Keiko’s life, the darker things become, until it isn’t clear that Ren himself will survive the trip unscathed.

Genre
This is a book that perhaps was mis-billed for me. That is to say, I expected a thriller going into the book—the beginning chapters set in motion the story of a grieving brother, come to the small town where his sister lived and was recently murdered. Ren is on a quest to find his sister’s killer, though he quickly comes to realize he didn’t know her nearly as well as he thought. While this plot provides the scaffolding for the book, at its heart, Rainbirds is less a noir mystery and more a character study into grieving Ren. That said, the noir feel remains—this may not be a noir thriller but it starts dark and stays dark. Throughout the book, I had the feeling of impending storm clouds—an expectation, a crackling of electricity in the air, the surrounding foggy darkness. If you like dark, slightly creepy literary character studies, don’t let the early chapters turn you off. This book may be right up your alley.

Audio
I have mixed feelings about the audio of this book. On the one hand, I usually enjoy audio of any books set in different countries or with non-American characters. The audio usually adds to the experience, setting forth the cadence of the speech, the different emphasis and pronunciation of what are otherwise familiar English words. And the names and places are almost never ones I could get right without audio—case in point here, the book takes place in the fiction “Akakawa.” If I had to read that, I’d probably have emphasized (very incorrectly) the middle “kak” where the audio narrator pronounced it “Ah-kah-kah-wah” – no kaks involved.

But I digress. Rainbirds seemed like the kind of book I usually love on audio. My issue here, however, was that this book was gloomy in the extreme. I do most of my audiobook listening while driving so the combination of the gloomy mood, melodic male narrator, and almost no action meant that there were times when I had to stop listening. This was, for example, not the book I could listen to while driving three hours home at 1am after a concert and stay awake and alive.

This is not to say that I don’t recommend the audio of this book. The voice of the narrator was well-chosen and it was produced well—I just personally need a little more action in my audiobooks.

Lolita
One of the characters Ren becomes entangled with is a student at his cram school—Rio Nakajima, whom Ren nicknames Seven Stars after the brand of cigarette she smokes (much as Humbert Humbert renames Delores, “Lolita”). Though Rio is not prepubescent, she is seventeen and Ren (though in his early 20s himself) is her teacher. When the two inevitably become sexually involved—I say inevitable because by the time it finally happens it has been so long set up that it’s impossible to miss where this going—it reeks of Lolita. Seventeen is a good distance from twelve and she does attain the age of consent in the book; however, in the process of discovering what happened to Keiko, Ren also uncovers family events that have led Rio to be as damaged as she is. This is not a well-adjusted seventeen year old who happens to be wise above her years. This is a damaged, childlike, aged-too-fast seventeen year old who has no business becoming romantically entangled with her teacher. This entire relationship still bothers me, even though I finished the book over a week ago.

With that said, Goenawan is a talented writer—though Ren tries to avoid scenarios where he would be alone with Rio, the course of events forces the intimate meeting. The set up allows you to sympathize when Ren, even where the idea of a teacher engaging in a sexual relationship with a student is something that you normally think of as a hard line “no.” Though Rainbirds wasn’t ultimately a book I loved, the ability of Goenawan to make me empathize with someone I found morally problematic—during the very scenes I found problematic—makes me want to read her future works.

Connections
The characters were more interconnected than I expected, with the players forming a web—much like small town America, everyone knows everyone and one person is always related to another. These connections also created a bit of a subplot where Ren uncovers and solves another little mini-mystery as he digs for more information about his sister. These chapters could have felt like a tangent; however, learning more about the people in his sister’s life opened doors to him to learn more about Keiko. The diversions were short but worthwhile.

These connections and diversions also provided some unexpected little bursts in the book of “I didn’t see that coming.” The problem for me and why I’ve been sitting with this book is that, for all the little bursts I didn’t see coming, the one I would have wanted—the identity of the murderer and some kind of conclusion—never popped. Instead, the conclusion fizzled, like a balloon slowly leaking air.

Ending (Very, Very Mild Spoilers—No Killer Identified)
Having had more time to think about it, I found the ending ultimately unsatisfactory—Ren does achieve a sense of closure in that he (and therefore the reader) determines whodunit, but by this point, the story had petered out so much, that it felt lackluster. Does Ren even care that he got his answer? I honestly couldn’t tell. He’s discovered something of himself—something perhaps he didn’t want to know. Where the previous connections and reveals crackled, the final reveal felt as if it didn’t matter. If Ren didn’t care that he had his answer, should we?

And here I come back to the thought that perhaps this book was mischaracterized. When I set aside my disappointment over the finish, over the sense that the mystery was no mystery at all, I’m left with a character study. A slow-burn, creepily noir character study into Ren, yes, but more his sister. In searching for his sister’s killer, the person Ren really finds is her, but far too late to do anything about it.

Notes
Published: March 6, 2018 by Penguin Random House
Author: Clarissa Goenawan
Date read: May 2, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

MMD March: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adelbayo

MMD March: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adelbayo

I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us, and reveal to us the better version of ourselves. And though I knew Akin had played me for a fool, for a while I still believed that he loved me and that the only thing left for him to do was the right thing, the good thing. I thought it was a matter of time before he would look me in the eye and apologise.

So, I waited for him to come to me.

Delinquent (Oops?)
I’m not sure I’ve been quite so delinquent on posting a book that had a sort-of-deadline built into its relevance but here we go. I read the MARCH book club selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and finished timely (March 4th!) and yet haven’t felt like I’ve had a chance to really sit down and process everything that is this book.

Synopsis
Stay With Me follows Yejide, a Nigerian woman who has been unable to have a child with her husband Akin. The story follows Yejide as she takes increasingly desperate steps to have and then keep a child.

Avoiding the Spoilers
It is hard to discuss this book without spoiling the events. This was a book I experienced with no extra information besides what appeared on the flap-copy. I didn’t know what exactly Yejide and Akin were willing to try or how each of those steps would result. This will be a short review—I want to review it because it is so well done but do not want to spoil any of the little events in the middle along the way. So I apologize now for my brevity and vaguess—do not let this deter you from reading but rather take it as a sign that you should pick up the book and see for yourself why I am rating it so highly.

Loss
The most prominent and obvious theme in Stay With Me is one of loss. There is the loss of children—each loss different in its means and impact—but also the loss of relationship and self. As is common in couples who experience this kind of loss, with each step Yejide and Akin take to have a keep their children, the two are driven further apart. Steps taken to have the child that will ultimately strengthen their marriage become the wedges between them. With each loss, Yejide also loses parts of herself. A chipping away so subtle that it isn’t clear until whole sections have been sheered off that this was happening. At a apex in the plot, Yejide makes a choice to initiate the loss herself—when you have had what you love most repeatedly wrenched from you hands, at some point initiating the coming loss feels like the only way to protect yourself, to try to keep a shred of agency. I am not sure I have ever read another book that explores the myriad facets of loss and its impacts so effectively.

Structure
The book does jump around a bit in time and narrator—the bulk of the story-telling is from Yejide’s point of view, though every third or fourth chapter is Akin. The chapters are not labeled so the reader has to realize the narrator has changed—this was somewhat disconcerting at times, though it was easy enough to realize this had happened within a few sentences. It didn’t bother me and it seemed a deliberate choice made by Adebayo to deliberately disrupt the narrative and leave the reader feeling as disrupted and off-balance as Yejide and Akin. The abrupt narration change did, however, both some readers—the handful of negative reviews on Amazon mention this. The time jumps are labeled, so while they are also abrupt at times, it is clear you’ve moved forward or backwards in time.   This kind of structure almost never bothers me—I like non-standard devices and techniques and I like to see authors play with things like this. This is, however, something it keep in mind if this style is something that usually impacts your ability to connect with a book.

Characters
To me, Yejide was a likeable narrator, drawing me in. Though we have nothing in common on paper—I have never even been to Nigeria, I have never tried to have a child—her experiences and the way Adebayo has her narrator speak to the reader made me feel a connection to her. She is well fleshed out—flawed but in ways that make sense for her experiences. She makes terrible choices at times, but by the time these happened, I connected with her so deeply I understood why she made the choice and was making it along with her. Stay With Me is a fascinating character study and makes me want to read more of Adelbayo’s work.

Because Yejide is the main narrator, I had a biased view of Akin. I felt affection for him early, as he supported Yejide. But as he and Yejide few further apart, I came to pity him, to see him as weak. Here again, this speaks to the power of Adebayo’s narrator. Stay With Me manages to simultaneously present Akin in the way his wife sees him, to have her thoughts color his presentation; yet just enough of his own character shines through here and there in his chapters that you still see him as a fleshed out person. He isn’t merely a foil or a plot device for Yejide’s development. He is his own character and I enjoyed digging for his real personality under Yejide’s assumptions about his motives.

In the discussion Anne hosted with Adebayo for book club, it came up that some people found all of the characters unlikeable and they struggled to finish. I was surprised by this assessment—Yejide and Akin seemed like people to me. Real people are not always likeable. And perpetually likeable characters are boring. Adebayo introduced both Yejide and Akin so thoroughly that I understood why they were making the choices they made; I understood why they were hurt and thus why they hurt others. I didn’t find either of them irredeemable or so distasteful that I wanted to stop reading.

The other fun little note that come up during the discussion is that all Yoruba names mean some thing. For Yejide, anyone who met her would know someone died before she was born—they would assume her grandmother but in Yejide’s case it was actually her mother who died giving birth to Yejide. Akin’s name means a courageous man—an ironic touch the more you get to know him.

Highly Recommended
I feel again that I need to apologize for being so vague—I feel like I’m saying “You should read this book but I can’t tell you why! You just should!” Obvious triggers surrounding child loss notwithstanding, this is a book I highly recommend if you like character-driven books. There are also sufficient events to keep the book moving, with moments of crisis, so even those who need more heavily plot-driven books will find something here to keep them reading. The entirety of the action occurs in Nigeria and Adebayo is herself Nigerian (I believe she said she was Yoruba), making this a book for both #diversebooks and #ownvoies.

Flight Pick — Americanah and the value of listening to books by foreign writers
Anne’s flight pick to read with Stay With Me was Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah. I actually “read” (listened) to Americanah early in 2017 so I didn’t revisit it last month. I felt like listening to Americanah last year was particularly helpful—there is a cadence to the writing that was accessible to me as a white American reader that wasn’t available if I had only read the book. Indeed, having listening to Americanah I felt like I could read Stay With Me and even Freshwater better—the speech and cadence of the Nigerian English stuck with me and aided my reading. If you haven’t ever listened to an audiobook of a Nigerian writer, I recommend your first book be one you listen to—it will make the experience of that book and subsequent books richer.

Notes
Published: August 22, 2017 by Knopf
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Date read: March 4, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Featured Photo Credit: Alexis Brown

Review: The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale

Review: The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale

I received a digital ARC of this book from Knopf on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Knopf for their generosity and, because I enjoyed the book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

She thought of herself as little fragments drifting into the universe into tiny pieces and then she thought of each little fragment as separate and singular to herself, and she could not tell if she were only the fragments or if she were ever anything bigger than that….The last thing she heard was the sound of her own heartbeat, improbably consistent, uniquely her own…The sound of her heart to herself, a sound she’d heard so many times, as sound she barely ever listened to.

Synopsis
Leda is a Boston college student, a daughter, a postgrad, a fiancé in love, a young mother, middle-aged, and then elderly. The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky follows the lifecycle of a woman just beginning her life until she closes her eyes for the last time. In the intervening decades, Casale takes us on a journey of what it means to come of age and then to simply age in a time when what it means to be a woman is constantly in flux.

Identity
At it’s heart, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is about the woman we envision ourselves to be when we are young—not as children, but in those college formative years, when the world feels open and full of possibility (assuming of course that you are at least middle class and white—this book probably isn’t going to appeal to you if you aren’t).   As a result of this focus, this book made me uncomfortable, not because of any particular topic touched upon by Casale or even any particular choice Leda makes, but rather, because she reminded me of a time in my life when I wasn’t sure who I was—something that was frankly true until about four years ago. I could be the girl who reads Noam Chomsky. Or, more likely at nineteen, I can be the girl who sees someone reading the book and wants to be the girl who reads Noam Chomsky. The girl who wants that to be how people think of her. Like Leda with the Chomsky book, I carried around an idea of who I was and who I wanted to be for a long time, until life circumstances forced me to accept that the idealized version of myself I was trying to be was killing me. My Noam Chomsky had become the albatross around my neck. We do eventually see Leda settle in to her own skin, though there are times when it is clear that maybe that isn’t something that’s fully possible—there is always someone you’re trying to be, some version of yourself that you want to grow into.

Time
Casale makes a slightly unusual choice for a coming-of-age novel—unlike most novels of this type, Leda is always coming of age—we follow her from one life stage to the next into old age. There is no end to Leda’s growth, she never arrives at any particular, set point and specifically never becomes the woman who reads Noam Chomsky.   The decision to follow Leda through her entire adult life is interesting—the book spans the decades of her entire life, meaning there were times I connected to her and then we passed that point where I could. Indeed, by the sheer nature of the passage of time and changes of Leda, it is hard to imagine that any one reader can fully identify with her. At some point, Leda’s life experiences so outpaced mine that it went from feeling as if I were chatting with a friend over coffee to watching a movie purely as a bystander, with no direct engagement. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—by the time Leda’s life experiences passed mine, I cared enough about her to keep reading to see where she ended up. I just couldn’t relate any more.

This sprawling narrative did mean that time passed rather more quickly at the end, and I don’t love a novel that accelerates significantly in the last chapters. It was also somewhat awkward in the writing of these last chapters because I thought of Leda as being around my age, placing the end chapters in a future at least forty years from now. With the rate at which technology is developing and changing the way we interact, it meant the Casale had to keep some of the background and action here necessarily vague. This wasn’t a novel about the future—it was a novel about growth that by necessity had scenes in an unknown future. Casale had taken Leda so far that she was almost duty-bound to finish with her, but the constraints of the unknown future impacted these chapters and gave them less depth than the more hearty chapters in the middle of the book.

Feminism
In a world where woman are told to stand up for themselves and to stop apologizing, it is easy to feel as if the expectations of being a feminist are just as hard to fulfill as the ones we’re supposed to be escaping from. Casale captures this tension with Leda—Leda shouldn’t want to move across the country for her partner’s job, and yet she does. Does this make her a bad feminist? When she has a daughter, she doesn’t want her daughter to want the Barbies, but is it feminist or anti-feminist to steer her away from what she loves to something less symbolic of the constraints of womanhood we are supposed to be escaping from? Sometimes being a woman is exhausting—you will almost certainly always being disappointing someone on both ends of the spectrum here, too burn-your-bra for the patriarchy but still too barefoot-and-pregnant for the feminists. It is simultaneously a liberating and constraining time to be alive and Casale captures this tension in relatable ways with Leda’s development.

Style
The initial choppy writing style threw me off at first and if this weren’t a book I had gotten on Netgalley and felt I had to push through to review, I likely would have stopped after a chapter or two. As Leda ages, her voice becomes more confident and the choppy style diminishes, settling into a more readable rhythm. All that to say, the writing isn’t going to win any awards but the style choices that make it more difficult to read initially do fade into a more standard, flowing narrative. It is nowhere near as terrible as Lilac Girls, my evergreen measuring stick for subpar writing.  Casale really started to hit her stride for me when she started describing the pretentious hipsters who populated Leda’s writing seminar in Chapter Six—the chapters are short and it is worth pushing through to this point. I’m not usually a proponent of pushing through if you don’t have to, but I do think this book takes some time to settle in to and it’s fair to give it at least eighty pages before you decide to abandon Leda.

Verdict?
In the end, this is a book that I wound up enjoying and would rate as better than average. I wouldn’t recommend this book widely, rather its one of those books that I would recommend to specific people after knowing them and having a feel for their reading lives.

Notes
Published: April 17, 2018 by Knopf (@aaknopf) available for pre-order now
Author: Jana Casale (@janacasale)
Date Read: January 27, 2018
Rating: 3 ¼ stars

Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater is going to be one of those books that draws a strong reaction from people—the viewpoint is non-standard, the structure unusual, and the content will be blasphemous for some. I adored it.

Synopsis
As a side note, I often write the synopsis last and usually struggle. It’s not my favorite part of this process but I assume people want at least a basic plot summary at the beginning. I have never struggled this much to summarize a book in a way that does it justice.

Freshwater is ultimately the story of Ada, beginning with her time as an embryo when she is first inhabited by the Ogbanje* spirits that will come to define her life. We follow Ada from birth through young adulthood, experiencing her life as it is described largely by the Ogbanje themselves. Her life is never easy—constantly at the whims of the spirits that embody her—and yet, perhaps because she is so full of spirits, her life has been more full than that experienced by others.

Viewpoints

I don’t even have a mouth to tell this story. I’m so tired most of the time. Besides, whatever they say will be the truest version of it, since they are the truest version of me….In many ways, you see, I am not even real. –Ada

She named me this name, Asughara, complete with that gritty slide of the throat halfway through. I hope it scrapes your mouth bloody to say it. When you name something, it comes into existence—did you know that? -Asughara

Freshwater is told in alternating viewpoints, though the viewpoints don’t share equal time, nor do they alternate in any particular order. The majority of the story is told from the viewpoint of the simmering, unnamed We—constantly in motion, constantly swirling around in Ada. She is subject to their whims in the sense that she can be querulous and divided in her attentions and wants. They are not of this world and they embody Ada such that she isn’t entirely either. The We open the book, describing Ada’s childhood in Nigeria as a middle child with a physically absent mother and an emotionally absent father. They return periodically, the Greek chorus filling in the audience, if the Greek chorus were the inner workings of a major character’s mind.

When Ada leaves Nigeria for college in the United States, she is shortly beset upon by one of the Ogbanje that becomes dominant enough to earn a name—Asughara.* Asughara is blood-thirsty and bent on destruction—others mostly, though her actions while embodying Ada will drive Ada to her limit. She is almost solely self-centered (Asughara-centered over Ada-centered) at the cost of all others, though she also protects Ada in some ways from experiencing violence, particularly sexual violence.

Very, very rarely Ada herself does speak, giving the reader the sense (mostly) of the agony of being beset upon by these gods, constantly at their mercy, constantly pulled in different directions that ultimately seem only to point to her destruction—a destruction that will free the Ogbanje back to the brothersisters.

There is one other viewpoint that is dominant enough to be named but does not, that I can recall, have any chapters directly from his viewpoint. When Asughara wanes, her opposite is St. Vincent. A male Ogbanje striking for his gentleness and yet no less fully encompassing of Ada’s self than Asughara.

Trigger Warning / Cautions
There are setting events that cause some of Ada’s Ogbanje/personalities to become dominant at different points in time. As you might expect, one of these things is a rape—while it is not described in excessive detail, its impact on Ada is and so this deserves a trigger warning. There are also a series of unhealthy relationships that at times include some elements of physical violence that may make some readers uncomfortable. This is something that I usually prefer to avoid; however, because the viewpoints describe the actions happening to Ada in a removed sense, these weren’t as triggering to me personally as they could have been—i.e. Ada doesn’t describe the violence to her body, Ashughara or the We/Ogbanje chorus do at a level removed. The removal itself indicates Ada’s own detachment from the trauma but in some ways, this device also made it easier for me to read.

While not something that deserves a trigger warning in the usual sense of the phrase, when St. Vincent embodies Ada, he doesn’t feel at home in her feminine body such that she starts wearing a binder and even has reduction surgery to be more masculine or, at least, more androgynous. I am not versed in the best ways to sensitively approach this topic. While Emezi seems to use it to show how Ada was at the mercy of the competing whims of the Ogbanje, I can also see the idea that her “trans personality” (for lack of another way to name it) is the result of some whim of the gods being an offensive way to explain why someone might not feel at home in their body—it isn’t Ada that wants to be more masculine but rather St. Vincent when he is forefront among the Ogbanje.

Writing
The writing—the word choice, cadence, and sentence structure—is loosely narrative in a sprawling, serpentine sense. This isn’t a Faulknerian stream of consciousness structure, but this is also not straight narrative. The spirits speak as they want and they rarely want to report what is directly happening. You have to read between the lines of what the Ogbanje describe they are doing to understand what this means for Ada—what this manifestation means for her body as it moves through the world. The writing felt fresh and original, never overdone for me, though it will absolutely drive away some readers. I would encourage you, dear reader, to push through several chapters before you give up on this one if it doesn’t seem immediately for you. Because the writing is so unlike most of what is readily out there for Western audiences to easily consume, it can take a few chapters to settle into the way the Ogbanje narrate but the investment is worth it. If the topics aren’t for you then that’s not something I can likely change but I propose that the writing is something you can get used to and this book is worth the investment, particularly if reading diversely is something you value.

Blasphemy
Jesus—the god of the white man—is presented as essentially another Ogbanje. He isn’t truly in the sense that he isn’t African and the Ogbanje are the Igbo spirits; however, he interacts with Ada in much the same way as the other spirits. He rarely answers Ada when she seeks his help and he is no more holy and no more a god than the others. If this is going to bother you, this isn’t a book you should start.

Mental Illness

We’ve wondered in the years since then what she would have been without us, if she would have still gone mad. What if we had stayed asleep? What if she had remained locked in those years when she belonged to herself?….The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin. -We

Inaccurate and/or lazy descriptions of mental illness are something I can’t abide in a book and yet…I had no problem with Freshwater. The manifestation of the Ogbanje through Ada is pretty clearly interpreted by people around Ada as the manifestation of mental illness—she dissociates into the various personalities, she can be manically hedonistic when in Asughara’s hands and is self-harming to the point of a suicide attempt.

On the one hand, the idea that mental illness is caused by the possession of evil spirits is an offensive proposition. And yet, I don’t think Emezi’s point was that Ogbanje are the source of all mental illness. Rather, while the outside word might interpret Ada’s actions as those of someone with mental illness, she isn’t one. Her actions have another cause but this doesn’t mean that all individuals with mental illness are also at the mercy of the Ogbanje. Because Emezi doesn’t present the Ogbanje as a universal experience outside of the Igbo people, I didn’t read Freshwater as really being a book about mental illness at all. Rather, mental illness was the periphery, an explanation others had for Ada but not the explanation for her at all.

Stay With Me
Shortly before I read Freshwater, I read Adebayo’s Stay With Me. Adebayo is also Nigerian (Emezi grew up in Nigeria and is Igbo, one of the larger people groups found in Nigeria). In Stay With Me one of the beliefs that the characters discuss is the idea that malevolent spirits can be born to a mother, only to die and then repeat this cycle. In order to prevent the malevolent spirit from returning—so that, in essence, a real child can be born to the mother—the body the malevolent spirit inhabited must be mutilated and the object they use as their tether to this world and this family must be found and destroyed. I don’t recall Adebayo using the word Ogbanje (I could definitely be wrong) but these are the same spirits that embody Ada in Freshwater, except the spirits in Freshwater didn’t cause Ada to die as a child. Where Stay With Me peripherally explains what the Ogbanje often cause, Freshwater explains what happens when they stay and the havoc they can wreck. If you read Freshwater and enjoy it, you may enjoy Stay With Me. If you enjoyed Stay With Me and are wiling to go a step further down the path into the beliefs espoused by some of the minor characters in Stay With Me, then check out Freshwater.

Notes
Published: February 13, 2018 by Grove Atlantic (@groveatlantic)
Author: Akwaeke Emezi (@azemezi)
Date read: March 8, 2018
Rating: 4 ¼ stars

*While the Microsoft Word symbols have a plethora of symbols/letters for other languages, the “O” in Ogbanje and the “u” in Asughara actually have a dot under them in (what I believe is) Igbo based on the Author’s dual ethnicity as Igbo and Tamil. Word, not terribly surprisingly, doesn’t have this symbol.

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.

Synopsis
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.

Characters
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.

Themes
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.

Writing
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.

Recommended
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.

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

Listen Here: He Said/She Said, We Are Okay, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Listen Here: He Said/She Said, We Are Okay, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

I’ve been on a tear with audiobooks recently so, without further ado, here are three I’ve finished in the last few weeks.

He Said/She Said
Synopsis: He Said/She Said follows Kit and Laura, alternating between their early days of dating to today, ten plus years’ married. Kit is a solar eclipse chaser and, at one of the first festivals where he invites Laura into the fold, Laura interrupts a rape. The repercussions of that rape and the interruption are continuing some fifteen years later when Kit breaks their years of hiding to travel for another eclipse, leaving Laura pregnant at home.

This is a book I probably should have done a bit more research on before diving in, though I’m not sure even that would have prepared me for this book. All I knew going in was that it was on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer 2017 Reading Guide and it was about solar eclipse chasers—a timely choice since there was the total solar eclipse last summer in the United States. I actually tried to start the book a few times on Kindle but kept not being able to get into it before it was due at the library again. I finally gave up on reading it and reserved the audiobook.

And WOW was there a difference. Where I was feeling ambivalent about reading the book, the audiobook brought this thriller to life for me—the voices of Laura and Kit were chosen well and I’m a sucker for a novel set in Britain read with accents (really, I think any book set outside the United States is almost always better on audio for this reason). I was immediately sucked into Laura’s anxiety over her life in hiding with Kit, Kit’s near-obsession with chasing solar-eclipses now placing them at risk since the impending eclipse means he will be partially coming out of total hiding, like the sun moving out of the moon’s shadow—a metaphor that I suppose only works if solar eclipses lasted the years Kit and Laura have been in hiding.

I should probably have guessed from the title but the central action revolves around a rape accusation—a rape interrupted by Laura during an eclipse fifteen years prior. (Hence my suggestion that I probably should have done research on this one—all the trigger warnings for rape, misogyny, and gaslighting.) In an unexpected turn of events, Laura winds up befriending the victim, Beth, until that friendship places Laura and Kit’s lives in danger. As Kit and Laura tentatively step out of hiding, the events of that day and the players involved come crashing back into their lives.

I think I’ve said this before, but I’m pretty good at predicting where a book, movie, or show is going to go. It drives my boyfriend a little crazy when we’re watching something on television and I can predict what’s about to happen, sometimes down to the way the characters say whatever the big reveal is. He Said/She Said had more than one twist I found surprising—Kelly kept me on the edge of my seat and had twists that were shocking, though not so farfetched as to be implausible. Indeed, even what points Kelly was going to make—is she really going to suggest a woman would lie about rape? Is Men’s Rights really going to make an appearance in this book?—weren’t entirely clear through significant portions of the book. There were moments where I couldn’t stop myself from listening, even though I wasn’t sure if what was about to happen was going to make me angry. Kelly’s agenda wasn’t clear until almost the end of the book—something that is rare and made this book all the more gripping.

The majority of my “reading” of audiobooks is done in the car. The sign of an excellent audiobook is if I choose it over a physical book once I get home. I couldn’t put He Said/She Said down and wound up cleaning my entire house and eating meals staring into space just so I could keep the last half of the audiobook playing. I recommend this one if you can handle the triggers and may be re-listening to this one with the boyfriend if we have a long drive coming up.

Notes
Published: June 6, 2017 by Minotaur Books (@minotaur_books)
Author: Erin Kelly (@erinjelly)
Date read: February 17, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

We Are Okay
Synopsis: We Are Okay follows Marin, a college student at an unnamed college in New York as she prepares to stay in the dorms over the Winter Break. As you come to learn through Marin’s flashbacks and conversations with a high-school friend/possible former sweetheart who has come to visit, Marin has no other home, having lost her grandfather shortly before she was to start college. The novel explores the reaches of grief, though as the reader comes to understand, Marin’s grief is complicated by the complicated person she discovered her grandfather to be only upon his death.

I can see why this book was an award winner but for me it was sort of a mellow come-down since I started it the same day I finished He Said/She Said. It was good, but it wasn’t exciting—it’s a slow burn, one that never really ignited for me, though I think this is a book that is deserving of its accolades. I probably just wasn’t in the right place at the right time for this book since it is one to savor rather than devour, and I was in a devouring mood.

I don’t know how the author, Nina LaCour, identifies and I don’t want to label her. What I can say is that she is married to another woman and they have a child together, so at a minimum, her orientation is not strictly heterosexual. I mention this (awkwardly) because I do think it is important to read diverse books and books that speak to the experience of traditionally marginalized populations. In this way, We Are Okay fits into the category of #ownvoices. As the reader swiftly comes to recognize, Marin also doesn’t identify solely as straight and, from what she says as you go further into the book, probably identifies as a lesbian. I say “probably” because Marin’s sexuality is in no way the point of the book, so she doesn’t really talk much about how she identifies on the orientation spectrum. While I valued The Miseducation of Cameron Post (amazing book—you should read it) and Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit (okay, but not as good as Cameron Post), those books were mostly about what it was like to come out and live out. Even Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, while broader in scope, addressed the sexuality question head-on as a major theme (also amazing and Lin-Manuel Miranda reads the audiobook and, at one point, laments having to learn about Alexander Hamilton which made me pause the book and cry laughing…but I digress). In We Are Okay, Marin is not straight but that’s really the point of the book. Instead, we have a girl who is grieving, whose grief is compounded by losing, at the same time, what was likely her first meaningful romantic relationship. We Are Okay is a book you could easily flip the sex of Marin’s partner and hardly notice a difference. In other words, We Are Okay is powerful in its lack of fanfare—Marin is (probably) a lesbian and that’s hardly worth noting except it’s entirely worth noting and celebrating. We have a book with a lesbian main character acting exactly like heterosexual teenager grieving her grandfather. There is both a universal experience (grief) and a lesbian character presented as simply living her life—exactly as life is. There is representation that matters and there are themes that are universal. We need the Cameron Posts but we also need the books with diverse characters in books that aren’t just about coming out. While We Are Okay didn’t hit the high note for me at the time, I do think this is a valuable book that is well-written and is one I recommend for fans of diverse books and/or YA.

Notes
Published: February 14, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: Nina LaCour (@nina_lacour)
Date read: February 18, 2018
Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Synopsis: On the last night of 1983, Lillian Boxfish finds herself taking a walk through New York City, reminiscing the good times and the bad, remembering what she was like as the highest paid woman ad-writer of her time, as a poet, as a broken woman, and as she is now—not entirely whole, not entirely all-right, but certainly not like any old lady you know.

Keeping with the theme of “okay” books and moving to the other end of the age spectrum, I also listened to the audio of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk earlier in the month. The voice for the audio is fantastic—she sounds like the octogenarian Lillian without having a voice that sounded grating or shrill or like the voice actor was trying to sound “old.” With the narrative itself, I have gotten the sense from a few other readers that Lillian Boxfish is a book that several readers gave up on—I do think it takes over a third of the way in until the book picks up sharply. The first third or more is a veeeeeery slooooooow setting of the stage and introduction of Lillian’s character so that when she meets her future husband, the reader experiences a shift of a startling magnitude—it isn’t that Lillian is being inconsistent, but rather, you see how what you thought of Lillian—how what she thought of herself—wasn’t entirely accurate. How others can have a profound and lasting impact on us, even after they are gone.

The struggle with this book, however, is that the first third provides so little payoff that it is hard to feel like continuing to read (or listen) is worth the time—you don’t see that back-end payoff coming, ever. I will admit that if any of the books I had on my hold list for audiobooks had come available at the time, I’m not sure I would have stuck this one out. The first third to half was a driving-only audiobook. The second half swiftly became the laundry-folding, shower-cleaning can’t-put-down variety.

Lillian as a narrator is tongue-in-cheek funny and is the kind of old lady I think I’d like to be. Her snappy one-liners were really the highlight of the book for me. Some of my favorite samples:

“His expression was sheepish enough to supply a Highland village with wool and milk. I cocked a loaded eyebrow.”

“Most of what we consider beauty is manufactured. But the fact of that manufacture does not make it unbeautiful.”

“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility.”

“One need not believe in something for it to happen anyway.”

“Choice is an illusion promoted by the powerful.”

If you’ve got time to invest, Lillian Boxfish may be worth your time but this is ultimately a take-it-or-leave-it book for me.

Notes
Published: January 17, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press (@stmartinspress)
Author: Kathleen Rooney
Date read: February 8, 2018
Rating: 3 stars

Header photo credit : Lee Campbell

DBC February: Living with Chronic Illness

DBC February: Living with Chronic Illness

The Diverse Books Club theme for February was Living with Chronic Illness. The selections were a middle-grade novel about a boy with cystic fibrosis, Caleb and Kit, and Left Neglected, a book about a women who has it all and is doing it all until an accident leaves her with a traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the middle-grade option this month more than the adult pick, though the adult pick had the unfortunate luck of being measured against Still Alice, an earlier book the author wrote.

Caleb and Kit
I looked up to the branches of the huge trees above me. Two long, thick trunks soared straight to the sky and then curved away from each other. I had heard once about trees that do that—live side by side but bend away to share the sun. They are buddies. They could stick close, but if they do, eventually one will struggle to tower over the other, keeping the weaker, unluckier one in the shade. Instead if they’re really friends, they’ll bend apart. I wondered if it hurt, twisting away from your friend like that.

Synopsis
Caleb is twelve years old and he’s just about had it with being treated like a baby or like a walking, talking illness. His father’s gone, distanced himself from the day-to-day trouble of addressing and treating Caleb’s cystic fibrosis while his mother has taken the opposite tack and hovers constantly, sunscreen in one hand and a snack in the other. As if that weren’t bad enough, Caleb’s older brother’s perfection hovers like a storm cloud—not only is Patrick healthy but he gets straight As, plays the violin like a virtuoso, and is so good he choses to spend his summer fundraising for cystic fibrosis charities. Having cystic fibrosis has limited Caleb’s universe of friends somewhat, leaving him feeling left out until, one day, he meets Kit in the woods. Kit doesn’t treat him like he’s about to break, she takes his limits in stride—pushing him at times to move past them without ever commenting on them or treating them like they are limiting her or their fun. As Caleb escapes into Kit’s fairy world, forgoing the summer camp he should be at, Caleb starts to see things about Kit’s life that don’t make sense. That maybe aren’t safe.

People First
In Caleb and Kit, while Caleb’s CF is a big part of the story, it ultimately isn’t the main point. This isn’t a story about a boy with CF whose family learns to stop babying him or who learns his own limitations. The heart of the story, the unknown that drives the book forward, is Kit. As an adult reader I could quickly put two and two together and see that Kit is being alternately neglected and physically abused by her mother. This is why she’s frantic to escape in fairytale, nearly always hungry, and seems to be living for days at a time in the woods with no food or real shelter. The book is about Caleb recognizing what’s happening and what he does about it once he knows.

I loved Vrabel’s choice to structure her book this way. I work with people with disabilities (mostly intellectual disabilities and/or mental illness) and there has been a movement for many years to use people first language—a person with mental illness, a person who uses a wheelchair, and person with autism. The idea is that the disability doesn’t define you and you’re a person first. Vrabel’s structuring her book around a non-disability plot and having a character who has a disability as a main character felt like people-first writing. I loved the unassuming message this sends to the child readers the book is aimed at about kids with disabilities being kids first, kids who have their own lives and things going on, kids who are to be included albeit with some minor modifications to activities.

Recommended
Caleb and Kit is a book I whole-heartedly recommend for middle-grade readers (or adults who enjoy middle-grade themselves). I can sometimes struggle with middle grade, to care what is happening next—in contrast Caleb and Kit was engaging and well written. I had no problem picking it up and wanting to keep reading. The characters are well developed and you really feel Caleb’s frustration at the ways his life has limited him. He makes some bad choices and is disobedient; however, those choices largely catch up to him with natural consequences that make the point that his choices were bad without it getting as intense as a book like Bridge to Terebithia, a book the forest scenes in Caleb and Kit called to mind. The themes and action are appropriate for younger middle-grade readers, so long as the adult is prepared to discuss the existence of child abuse (nothing graphic).

Notes
Published: September 12, 2017
Author: Beth Vrabel (@authorbethvrabel)
Date read: February 6, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Left Neglected

The first step in my recovery is to become aware of my unawareness…

Synopsis
Sarah Nickerson is living life at break-neck speed, working eighty-hour work weeks and mothering three children. Until suddenly the multitasking catches up to her, causing an accident that leaves Sarah with “left neglect”—a brain injury that causes her to entirely forget her left side even exists. As Sarah trains her brain to pay attention to a part of herself she’s never had to focus deliberate energy on, she is also forced to reckon with other areas of her life left long neglected, including her relationship with her mother.

Kind of a Niche Author
I was explaining the plot of Left Neglected to a coworker I talk books with and was explaining the general plots of some of Genova’s other books, including Still Alice. He commented that writing fiction books that center around brain disorders is sort of a weird niche. Admittedly, this hadn’t really occurred to me—I read a lot of Lurlene McDaniel tragedy-porn as a teenager so having an author write only about people with cognitive-related disorders didn’t strike me as terribly strange. My coworker’s comment prompted me to look up Lisa Genova—interestingly, she has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. Her other books have featured characters with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Autism, Huntington’s, and (in March) ALS.

This background certainly informs her writing—the science of her books seems well researched and not gimmicky (she doesn’t go for the rare but more “exciting” complications for the sake of plot). Her writing hits a spot between being scientifically authoritative and devastatingly human. I still remember picking up Still Alice one night at 10pm thinking I’d read a few chapters and be lights out by 10:30. Come 3am, I’m awake and sobbing as I finish the last chapters. Genova’s characters in Still Alice and Left Neglected (her two that I’ve read) feel like people I know or, even, people who could be me. While I felt that part of the power of Genova’s writing is the strong sense of identification I had with her characters, I should say here that in these two books, the main characters are high achieving, Ivy-League educated white women so it was fairly easy for me to identify with them. I have no way to know this for sure, but I suspect her characters may not seem as relatable to others and I don’t want to suggest that everyone should be able to see themselves in these characters. Regardless, I do think that even if you cannot see yourself in Genova’s characters, she sets up their back stories with sufficient detail that you can see the devastation the Alzheimer’s and then the traumatic brain injury has on each of these women and their lives such that you can grieve with them for what they lost.

“Happy” Ending (only very vague spoilers)
Looking at Genova’s other work (and omitting the book with the character with autism because I have no idea how she handled that topic, having not read the book), Genova’s books are ones that can rarely end happily—Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and ALS are all progressive and fatal, robbing the person of memories and/or bodily control. These stories can end peacefully but almost certainly not with something that would be considered a “happy” ending. The finality of those diseases constrains the ending of the books.

This isn’t true for a traumatic brain injury and this may be why the ending suffered the way it did for me. You’d think that having to end a book with a terminal disease would be more limiting; however, it seemed to me that being forced to end a book happily—not in the middle, not as tragedy, but with a redemptive note—was more limiting on Genova’s writing.

I don’t disagree with the way Genova ended her book—I think she did the right thing by having an ending that demonstrated that people with TBIs can still have fulfilling and happy lives. This ending though, can be seen from a mile away. Genova sets up Sarah’s “having it all life” complete with eighty-hour work weeks and three kids –a life incompatible with a traumatic brain injury that leaves her with permanent deficits. Sarah’s life before is an almost textbook example of what it means to be a working woman—an archetype so established in her extremes that you see the injury coming because there’s no way this woman is going to be able to keep up this pace. After the injury as Sarah begins to find ways to live around her limits, here too, you see the end coming a mile away. Genova can’t end this book with Sarah being depressed and never getting off the couch again. And yet, setting up the foundation for the life Sarah will learn to find fulfilling and enough when the book ends requires some sign posts that are so obvious as to be marquees for the resolution.

Take It or Leave It
I loved Still Alice and would recommend it to anyone that is in a place where they can read about Alzheimer’s. (It’s not a book for anyone currently going through it with a loved one or someone recently diagnosed). Left Neglected keeps this same style and attention to detail. It did feel like it dragged a bit for me and I and the rest of Goodreads saw the ending coming. Those flaws aren’t deal breakers though. Left Neglected has Genova’s impeccable writing and a strong female character that I enjoyed meeting and spending some time with. It’s not a book I felt wasted my time; however, it’s not going to make my best-of list any time soon.

Notes
Published: January 4, 2011
Author: Lisa Genova (@authorlisagenova)
Date read: February 1, 2018
Rating: 3 stars