Tag: Fiction

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 Adyobami Adelbayo

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami 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

Review: This Impossible Light by Lily Myers

I feel like I’ve done something terribly wrong
when all along
I’ve just been trying
to be good

Synopsis
This Impossible Light is a young adult novel in verse about Ivy, a fifteen year-old whose body betrays her as it grows, takes up the space left behind by her shrinking mother, leaving father, and missing best friend. As Ivy strives to perfection she comes to the seemingly logical conclusion that perfect lives in a place that can only be reached by restricting food and hours of biking up Seattle’s endless hills.

Before I go further I will explicitly say that this book, while beautiful and a book I think is a must-read—particularly for those who are or know teenage girls—comes with a giant trigger warning for disordered eating.

Shrinking Women
This Impossible Light is Meyers’s first novel, grown from the themes of her award-winning slam poetry piece, Shrinking Women, about the accidental inheritance of the women in her family, the messages passed along like the uneaten bread crumbs along the path. She’s also published a few articles online and in anthologies, largely about modern feminism.

Novel in Verse
I have not picked up many novels in verse, with Brown Girl Dreaming one of the first (if not the first) I can remember reading. I’ve never been a particular fan of most poetry—I enjoy it but I always feel like I’m trying really hard to like it more than I actually do. (The struggles of the book-snob life are real.) With well done novels in verse, I don’t run into the problems I do with other poetry—there are metaphors, sure, and there is meaning beyond the immediate words—but there is also a plot and character development so I feel like I can see where the poem is going and the message its conveying. I know the point of view of the speaker, I know her struggles and the supporting characters in her life. So when she tells me something, I know more of what she is saying that just the words on the page. Her life gives me the background I need to see the metaphor. With this foundation, I can appreciate the cadence and the crescendos—I can appreciate the poetry as poetry.

This Impossible Light satisfied my taste in novels in verse—the writing was spot on, the word choice itself fairly straightforward and easy enough for a middle schooler, though thematically (both for the disordered eating and kids that party their way into alcohol poisoning), I wouldn’t recommend this book until 8th grade. It had the cadence of a spoken word poem, with many poems standing alone with an internal crescendo. The individual sections themselves built to internal conclusions, with the poems speeding up, feeling more frantic, as Ivy’s loses hold on the control she’s desperately seeking to gain by restricting her food.

So was everyone else really being this “bad” in high school?
It has seemed that over the last several months, every book I read set in high school features kids partying and/or sleeping around. My first thought is usually that I’m getting old and kids these days are drinking way more and having more sex than we were in high school. Shortly after this thought comes a sneaking suspicion that probably everyone else was drinking this much and having (almost) this much sex and just no one was talking to me about it because I would absolutely have judged them for it (I wasn’t very kind in high school). It’s funny how reading YA has made me realize how sheltered my own high school existence was—sheltered both by my parents and by the other kids leaving me out of things. (It’s okay. I eventually turned out alright.)

Here too I identify with Ivy. She was actually invited to the party (I was too—exactly one time) and drank a little bit before deciding it wasn’t for her. I deeply appreciated that Myers’s main character wasn’t into drinking, that she felt left out and somehow younger than everyone else when she made this choice. This resonated with what I remember feeling in high school. In many ways, Myers undercurrent of self-acceptance and self-love in This Impossible Light extends not only to Ivy’s body but also to her likes and dislikes. That math worksheets or watching movies with your mom can be an entirely acceptable way to spend a weekend.

Control

When you’re told enough times
the way you are
it doesn’t seem like
you’re allowed to be
anything
else

From experience the “good girl” thing becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, knowing that you’re a math nerd at heart can be a thing to embrace, though the line between self-nerd-love and defining yourself as the perfect mathlete, perfect scholar, perfect daughter can be razor sharp.

Though I never really fell prey to true disordered eating, I can identify with Ivy’s desperate need for control. I am a perfectionist at heart—if I’m perfect, if the world I order is perfect, then no one can be disappointed. There is no room for upset—either literal or emotional—from me or anyone else. Indeed, this need for control, the high-achieving perfectionism as a response to a less than perfect home life (which, side note—no one’s home life is ever perfect. That’s a myth we should just give up now) made Ivy seem familiar, as if I were looking at a version of myself in high school. I do not think this need for control is unusual and, though I have absolutely nothing to back this up beyond my own subjective experience, I think it is likely that this sort of desire for control lies at the heart of most high-achiever girls.   That “perfectionism” is just a pretty word we use to describe someone with an intense need to control their environment and themself.

Recommended
As I indicated early on, I do think this is a novel most people should read—particularly anyone who teaches or interacts with teenagers. There is no right way to be a person when you’re a teenager—you can love what you love and hate what you hate—but the struggle is not having those things become what defines you. Part of the way you learn to love yourself without having the things you love become the things that rule your life (whether that be math or boys or both) is by having teachers, parents, and friends who walk that line with you—who show you where the difference is between healthy self-love and unhealthy obsession. Books like This Impossible Light can be signposts on that journey—both for the teenage girl and for the adults in her life. If you are in a place where you can read a book about disordered eating that includes the internal monologue of the person caught up in it, then this is a book I highly recommend.

Notes
Published: June 6, 2017 by Philomel Books (@philomel), imprint of Penguin Random House (@penguinrandomhouse)
Author: Lily Myers
Date read: February 3, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

Death comes for us all in one way or another. It is a certainty. Our lives will one day end, and most of us never know when. Interestingly enough, it is our mortality that gives our existence its value and beauty. If our days were not numbered, we probably wouldn’t care how we spent them. How does this knowledge that we are mortal affect our choices? The risks we take? The risks we don’t?

Synopsis
As Bright as Heaven goes back and forth in its narrators, moving between the perspectives of Pauline Bright and her three daughters. The events of the book span eight years during which each of the girls grows up—both by the simple circumstance of time passing as well as the events of life—including the Great War and the Spanish Flu—that force them to mature more quickly than they might have otherwise.

When the book opens, Pauline has just lost her infant son, brother to fifteen year-old Evie, twelve year-old Maggie, and six year-old Willa. Following on the heels of this intensely personal experience of Death comes an invitation to move to Philadelphia, for Pauline’s husband Thomas to learn the business of and take over his bachelor Uncle Fred’s mortuary. As Thomas and Pauline learn the business and experience the respect and, at times, gentleness of Death, the Spanish Flu arrives in Philadelphia, delivering a parentless baby boy into their arms. After the waves of flu and war recede, the Bright family is left amidst the ruins of a beleaguered and half-emptied city, looking different than they did when they arrived and struggling with what it means to move on with a new composition of family.

Timing
The joke may be getting a little tired now, with my having made it a few times on Instagram, but my timing in reading As Bright As Heaven (and, arguably, Berkley’s timing in publishing it) was not ideal. It’s a lovely book…to read any other time than flu season. I started carrying hand sanitizer and became wary of touching surfaces in public spaces. Although, my partner caught the flu shortly after I finished this book and I didn’t, so perhaps I have Meissner to thank for my health this year.

Admittedly, I was also a touch trepidatious about using a Book of the Month credit on As Bright As Heaven. I liked but didn’t love Meissner’s last book, A Bridge Across the Ocean. My bookshelves are nearly full so I only keep books I love enough to share or to reread, which extends to trying to buy only those physical books I think will merit the shelf space. Thankfully, As Bright As Heaven is a book worth keeping.

Characters
One of the main reasons I think I was able to get into Bright more than Bridge is that I could connect to the characters far more. I was never able to really identify with the women in Bridge and so never got past the feeling of watching someone else’s life from the outside. That disconnect also likely colored my reaction to how the story resolved—since I couldn’t connect, I wasn’t as invested in their endings. With Bright, Meissner created four distinct female characters, each of whom had a trait or traits I was able to identify with. Though it is hard to pick, I loved Evie most for her bookishness, her seriousness, and her choices that ultimately threw convention entirely out the window. It’s us serious rule-followers who, when we finally find someone or something worth throwing the rules out for entirely, can surprise you the most.

Pauline, fierce in her mothering, chose to keep Death near until its presence was a comfort rather than a scourge. Maggie, most like her mother, came into her own as she mothered little Alex, the baby found in the flu-ridden tenement. And Willa—strong-willed, lovely Willa grew up far before she should have and yet, in the acting older than her age, came to know who she really was.

Encountering History Through Fiction
As has been mentioned repeatedly, engaging historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read. I was a history major and enjoy reading about different periods of time, yet the human element often felt like it was missing in the average history class. (This may be a good time to mention that I was the kid who skimmed ahead to figure out when we’d be reading about the Donner party in 11th grade American History and baked sugar cookie people to bring in to eat in class that day. Arguably morbid, though you can’t say I didn’t insert a human element into the class. Only the teacher really appreciated the timing, though my classmates probably enjoyed the cookies.)

While writing is always high on my list of what makes a book a quality read for me, I can sacrifice lyrical prose when the character development is spot-on and the lives of the characters compelling. Bright hits my buttons on the character development, though this isn’t to say its poorly written. I had nothing to complain about in the tone or word choice, there just weren’t paragraphs I wanted to re-read or copy into my reading journal to appreciate again.

The characters were what drew me into the story, kept me reading late, and made the terror of the Spanish flu all the more real. I had heard the numbers about the flu, had realized intellectually that it had overlapped with the Great War, but hadn’t really thought about what that would have meant to the average household. Particularly in places like Philadelphia, there were not any places that were untouched by Death in the time those two overlapped. By making me care about her characters, Meissner made this specter of Death felt more real, more terrible and terrifying.

And, revisiting my timing joke from before, perhaps this was the year to read this book. We forget that people can die from the flu—it feels like something that doesn’t really happen anymore and yet, thousands have died this year. Nothing like the Spanish Flu, of course, but enough to remember that it’s possible. To remind you that, as in As Bright As Heaven, Death is always close by, even if we are not as aware of its presence as Pauline and her daughters.

Foreshadowing
If I have any complaints, it’s that the book did become predictable at times. If there are any teachers out there looking for examples of foreshadowing, there are some rather heavy-handed examples in Bright. Though, to be fair, when the war and the flu are killing everyone, it’s hard not to see some of the death coming.

To Meissner’s credit, even the events I saw coming I didn’t want to see. I wanted to be wrong, which doesn’t happen often. There was no satisfaction here in being right.

Recommended
This is a book I would recommend for fans of historical fiction and “women’s fiction” (ugh, again, to the name of that category). I probably wouldn’t recommend this to my coworker whose reading list is drawn almost exclusively from The New York Times book review but will recommend it to my mother. If you’re a fan of relatively easy to read, plot-driven historical narratives with strong, well-developed female characters, this is a book I would recommend to you.

Notes
Published: February 6, 2018 by Berkley (@berkleypub)
Author: Susan Meissner (@soozmeissner)
Date read: January 19, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

“They had a plan, but we’ve carried out our own plan. They wanted the children to be abandoned like junk in a warehouse, but we opened a school. They wanted them to be like cattle in a stable, but we’ve made them feel like people.”

“And what use has that been? All the children in the September transport have died.”
“It was worth it. Nothing has been in vain. Do you remember how they used to laugh?….”
“But it lasted such a short time—“
“Life, any life is very short. But if you’ve managed to be happy for at least an instant, it will have been worth living.”
“An instant! How short is that?”
“Very short. It’s enough to be happy for as long as it takes a match to be lit and go out.”
 

Synopsis
The Librarian of Auschwitz is a fictionalized account of Dita Kraus, a real-life teenager who survived the family camp in Auschwitz. While in the camp, she risked her life as the “Librarian,” managing the eight books that had been smuggled into the camp and used in the school as well as the “living books”—people who knew certain stories so well that they could be called upon to recite them as if they were reading the tale. Being caught with the books was sufficient cause to be shot on sight, and yet Dita and others risked their lives to keep these books and educate the children of Auschwitz.

“YA”
While The Librarian of Auschwitz is written on the reading level of a YA book with teenagers as the majority of the main characters, it is still highly readable as an adult reader. This isn’t a bubbly, romance-y YA. Though different stylistically, The Librarian of Auschwitz reminded me of The Book Thief—another well-written book that takes the Holocaust and its death and vicious ideologies and presents them in age-appropriate, though unsanitized ways. By its very subject matter, this book is brutal—but brutal in ways that are appropriate for older middle school through high school readers. The language and events are not dumbed down—it is clear what is happening and there were many times I teared up and had to take a minute—including when an arriving solider stood to finally announce that Bergen-Belsen, the camp Dita had been transferred to, was liberated in the name of Great Britain and her Allies.

Historical Fiction
Historical fiction set during WWII in the European theater, when done well, is one of my favorite genres. I adore All the Light We Cannot See (even if that makes me cliché) and last year inhaled Konar’s Mischling. When a few friends started posting on Instagram about Librarian of Auschwitz, I knew I had to read it.

Several of the characters featured in The Librarian of Auschwitz were real or were closely based upon real people. It names and tells the stories of many of the ordinary, extraordinary people who lost their lives in Auschwitz.  I had never heard of Fredy Hirsch, the almost forgotten almost-hero of the family camp. I was not very aware of the Resistance operating within the camps, the almost uprisings. Fredy was simultaneously the light of the family camp school and an ordinary man. He could easily have been your kid’s soccer coach or the guy who leads bootcamp at my gym. And he was killed at roughly the same age I am now.

#NeverForget and White Nationalism
Holocaust Remembrance Day was a few weeks ago, with the usual posts of #NeverForget. And yet, it feels as if we have forgotten.  It feels as if the farther we get away from the events of the 1930s and ‘40s, the easier it is to see the Holocaust as another fact to be memorized in history class. Currently there is a bill pending in Poland to ban referring to Auschwitz and other death and concentration camps in Poland as “Polish camps.” We distance ourselves and we forget. The Nazi machine ran because ordinary people were willing to serve as the nuts and bolts, the cogs that ran the machine. We tell ourselves it wouldn’t have been us, yet we are no different than the majority of Europeans—or even Americans—who willfully ignored or refused to believe what was happening. Or knew it was happening and were complicit in their silence. Feel free to disagree if you want, but the torches of Charlottesville tell me I’m right.

The sheer number of lives lost is so huge as to feel not real at times. And lost in these numbers is often the horrific way over six million people lost their lives to the racist machine that was Nazi Germany and its collaborators. We remember the number who died but not how, or even why. With the Holocaust fading in collective memory, with its events becoming less known and thus less shocking, the scourge of white nationalism is again making public its face.

Books like The Librarian of Auschwitz are vital tools in the moral battle in which we now find ourselves, knowingly or not. Dita Kraus was a real child—a child—who was taken from her home, herded into a train car, starved, tortured, beaten, and nearly killed (and not for lack of trying on the part of the Nazis). It is important that we see that behind these astronomical numbers and the vicious and morally wrong ideologies there are people—children—whose lives were and are again being threatened.

I put The Librarian of Auschwitz in the same category as Refugee. If we are to raise a kinder, more just generation immediately after ours, we must have books like this. We must read them, we must share them, and we must ensure they are taught.

Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, African, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law—have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think.

Recommended
It’s easy to avoid books set in the Holocaust as “too depressing.” To an extent, all books set in the death camps are bleak, or at least they are if they are accurately written. And yet, as much as any book set in the time can be, The Librarian of Auschwitz is hopeful. Just as the books served as a bright spot in the lives of the children, so too is this book a bright spot within Holocaust literature. It is a book of resistance and love, match sparks amidst the darkness of the camps. Even if you find this time period difficult to read about, I recommend The Librarian of Auschwitz. The YA reading level make it a bit easier to read than some others and it is vitally important, more than ever, that we read stories of what happens when we allow racist ideologies to take hold—it starts on the fringe and then you look up and realize the entire cloth has unraveled, the fringe become the mainstream. We still have time.

Notes
Published: October 10, 2017 by Henry Holt & Company (@henryholtbooks)
Author: Antonio Iturbe, Translator: Lilit Thwaites
Date read: January 28, 2018
Rating: 4 ¾ stars

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