Tag: Knopf

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

MMD January: Deep Work & Daily Rituals

MMD January: Deep Work & Daily Rituals

For January, Anne Bogel chose Deep Work for the main pick with Daily Rituals for the flight pick. I have to admit—I DNF’d Daily Rituals, though I got more out of Deep Work than I originally expected.

Deep Work
I have a bit of a bias against self-help books or books that even seem like they might be in a category at the bookstore next to self-help books. There’s not a particularly good reason for this aversion and it’s probably got roots in my aversion of books one can find on the shelves at Lifeway but it is what it is. But gosh darn it, I pay a (well-earned, well-deserved) fee for this Book Club so I’m going to read the dang book. And I’m glad I did—I’ve implemented several of the suggestions in Deep Work to start off the year feeling more productive and less stressed at work.

First, Newport defines “Deep Work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Shallow Work is, essentially, everything else—it is the easily replicable things that suck time not brainpower but do not contribute significantly to the furtherance of any goals. What follows after this set up is a series of rules/proposals/examples that show why arranging your time and focus to provide solid blocks of time for Deep Work is vital to maximizing your working potential.

As an attorney and supervisor of advocates at a non-profit, much of what I do doesn’t fall neatly into the Deep Work-Shallow Work dichotomy Newport sets up—I wouldn’t call editing complaints and appeals by advocates to regulatory agencies “shallow work”—It’s a skill that took years to hone and develop to know the laws and rules, the players, the right tone, the arguments to make, even how to edit in a way that leaves the original writer’s voice and in a way they learn to adopt the changes I’m making into their future drafts to be better writers. It’s a skill I’m constantly improving at myself. It is Deep Work at the time its being done but it is rarely, if ever, Deep Work that requires me to think deeply more than 45 minutes before the entire appeal/project is done, so thinking about it later or when idle isn’t really an issue. Moreover, the suggestion seems to be that Shallow Work is a necessary evil that should be minimized. I would say, however, that one of the areas I’ve had to grow in most as a manager are the soft skills—for example, being supportive and interested in my supervisees’ lives so that they feel valued. I do value the people I work with and so need to make sure I’m taking the time to communicate this—all of this time, however, would be something Newport calls Shallow Work. (Though even he uses being a better mentor and supervisor as an example of a goal. I do not think then, that Newport would suggest that we all be automatons. I think this is another example where something perhaps doesn’t fit neatly into one of the two boxes.)

Even though I don’t think the dichotomy proves a perfect fit for my work, there are strategies that Newport suggested that have made the beginning of my work year more productive and less stressful. First, I’ve changed how I used my time. I moved my regularly scheduled check-ins where I review cases and new records with my supervisees to be at the beginning of the morning or afternoon, leaving larger chunks of time available for me to get into a project. This way I’m not working on something for an hour, interrupted for an hour, and then trying to get back in where I left off. I also got an hour-by-hour planner so I can log ahead of time how I want to use my day, though I use pencil so that I can adjust based on my actual use of time (since someone’s always having an emergency that needs to become my emergency). Planning how to use my time to complete various projects has made deadlines feel less stressful so that I feel I can leave work at work, while charting how I’m actually using my time has made me better aware of where I was wasting time (so I stop—no one really wants to write “Fifteen minute Instagram break” on their planner).

Newport also emphasizes taking time to figure out what your goals are—what really matters to you both professionally and personally—and fitting your time and your use of technology (Facebook is, as expected, pretty maligned) around activities that help you maximize your goals in a way that preserves idle time. Indeed, one of Newport’s main arguments it that idle time is necessary to allow the brain to rest, reset, and thus have the capacity to do tomorrow’s Deep Work. I found this section valuable and do want to take more time to really sit with the suggestions and questions he sets out here.

My only complaint is that Deep Work has a pretty serious gender bias in the quotes, examples, and studies cited. Women were given as examples or sources of material fifteen times to men’s one hundred examples. We could certainly parse this out further—men have published more studies than women have so there were more source materials for him to cite for men. Which is, of course, indicative of a larger problem within academia of not-supporting, not-publishing women. Even as this improves, women still have a hell of a way to go before the rates are the same. So perhaps—perhaps—it is unreasonable to suggest that the rate could have been fifty-fifty. But certainly Newport could have done a better job finding studies and examples such that I wasn’t left with an overwhelming sense  that I was reading a book about men by a man. Something more than thirteen percent representation cannot have been that hard to achieve.

Daily Rituals

The flight pick was, in essence, examples of how various artists and thinkers organized their days to accomplish their Deep Work. I can see why Daily Rituals was a successful and entertaining blog concept—the descriptions of how various thinkers and artists spent their time is fascinating in the micro but gets repetitive in the macro. If I were to get one summary once a day (or even only a few times a week), I’d probably read them. But to try to get through 234 in the time I had the library book meant reading ten or more a day. The stories blended and I realized I was reading without any real comprehension or appreciation. I made it through 124 out of 234 before I called it quits and the only thing I can tell you is that Patricia Highsmith apparently smuggled in snails by hiding them under her breasts, six at a time, as she was crossing through customs when she moved to France. Also, I thought I wanted to read Look Homeward Angel, but now I’m not sure I can since I know way more than I ever wanted to know about Thomas Wolfe’s masturbation habits. (Which is to say, knowing any specifics at all is more than I want to know about anyone’s habits in that department. Knock yourself out but don’t tell me about it, please.)

Another issue I had with this read that contributed to the running-together-problem was that there was almost no context given for who the person was that was being described. Sure, some (like Freud or Benjamin Franklin) didn’t need an introduction, but the guy who I think I figured out was a Russian choreographer definitely did. Even if I’d heard a name before, I couldn’t tell you why I knew them or what their body of work was. Not recognizing the subject of the essay contributed to the disconnect and kept me in skim-only mode.

Finally, as with Deep Work, the subjects were overwhelmingly male and white and included Woody Allen. Going by my own quick count, there were 25 women to 135 men, meaning only 15.5% of the subjects were female. And while I didn’t count (since there were not pictures and I’d have had to google 234 people to confirm), I feel pretty solid in my assessment that the percentage of subjects of color is even less.

I did see how Daily Rituals connected to Deep Work and I could see how, in many ways, the assertions Newport makes in Deep Work played out—most artists/thinkers were only able to work for periods up to three hours before needing a break. Some managed to be creative or prolific in their fields without having the kind of schedule Newport suggests, though I could see how it was certainly more difficult for them to do so.

Overall, I see why the book was picked for the flight, but don’t feel bad about abandoning it. When I look back at my notes, the themes I was picking up seemed to be—“You get to sleep more than I do” or “Wow you do a lot of drugs.” Make of that what you will.

 

 

Review: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel


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Modern life seems set up so that we can avoid loneliness at all costs, but maybe it’s worthwhile to face it occasionally. The further we push aloneness away, the less we are able to cope with it, and the more terrifying it gets. Some philosophers believe that loneliness is the only true feeling there is.

Synopsis
In 1986, twenty year-old Christopher Thomas Knight walked into the woods in Maine, abandoning his car, his job, his family, and his life. For the next twenty-seven years, until he was caught, Knight lived in the harsh woods of Maine, surviving by stealing food and other necessaries from the inhabitants of the cabins and camps around North Pond, Maine. During that entire twenty-seven years, the only contact he had with another human occurred during one chance encounter with hikers, limited to the word “hi” and a wave. After he was caught, Knight ultimately plead guilty to a handful of the estimated one thousand burglaries he committed over that quarter century and was forced to live again in society. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of Knight’s survival—both in the woods and once forced out—as well as the story of how Finkel came to meet Knight and come to terms with how he chose to live.

White Privilege
This is most decidedly not what I was supposed to take from this book, but I spent large portions of this book with the phrase “White Privilege” going off like an alarm in the back of my head. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of how a man committed something around one thousand burglaries, including multiple burglaries of a camp for children with disabilities, in order to live alone without human contact. No matter his reason, no matter how sympathetic a character he appears, Christopher Knight is a man who burglarized and terrorized a community for twenty-seven years. Sure, some residents found it mostly harmless to lose the occasional book, pack of chicken, and roll of toilet paper. But others, understandably, felt violated. It wasn’t the value of what was taken, but the idea that someone had been in your house, going through your things. (As someone whose home was burglarized five years ago, I can attest—this is definitely a thing.) Despite all of this, Finkel paints him sympathetically—explains his reasons for why he committed “break-ins” (not “burglaries”), emphasizes how he suffered during his self-imposed exile. I cannot imagine anyone writing or agreeing to publish a book with so sympathetic an eye towards a black man who committed a thousand burglaries. And so there we have it. While The Stranger in the Woods is fascinating and well-written, it’s also unsettling in a way Finkel almost certainly never intended it to be. (Of course, I should probably acknowledge here that Finkel is himself an able-bodied, cis-white male.)

Structure
If The Stranger in the Woods were simply a straight-forward factual rendition of how Knight came to move into, survive, and then be caught in the Maine woods, the book would (frankly) be boring and incredibly short. Outside of explaining how he managed to survive through impossible winters, there’s not a lot to say about the twenty years Knight spent in the forest.

Finkel fleshes out what could otherwise be a boring tenth grade biography essay with his own story of Knight agreed to meet him alone of all the journalists clamoring for interviews as well as his own journeys hiking into Knight’s camp. This choice adds more a human-interest angle. The reader is expected to (and I did) identify more with Finkel, so by inserting himself into the story, there’s an easier and quicker connection. We also learn more about Knight in his interacting with/against Finkel than we would with Finkel merely reciting facts. Our meeting Knight this way is far more effective and a credit to Finkel for showing the reader, rather than just telling.

The other major element of the book is Finkel’s lengthy asides into the history of hermits, the value and meaning of solitude, Asperger’s disorder/Autism spectrum disorders (a tentative diagnosis given to Knight after his capture), suffering, cognition, time, and death. Finkel boils down theories and philosophies to present relatively neat packages against which Knight is presented. As you can likely imagine, he fits neatly almost nowhere, which is, likely, the larger point. These sections are where the real value of the book was for me. I enjoyed the theories, the quotes, and their application to the person of Knight.

Exploitation / Permission
Even if I found him a less sympathetic character than I was intended to, Knight is still a human being entitled to own his own story. Finkel quite literally inserted himself into Knight’s story and has made money selling books about Knight’s story. I had concerns throughout the book that The Stranger in the Woods was exploitative of Knight.   Towards almost the very end of his narrative, Finkel relates a series of conversations he had with Knight that had him worried Knight was about to end his life rather than continue to live in the society in which he did not fit. As part of this exchange, he notes that Knight conveyed to him that “after [Knight’s] gone…I can tell his story anyway I want.” Knight calls Finkel his “Boswell” (his biographer). So it would seem Knight gave Finkel permission…except Knight isn’t gone. So did he or did he not have permission to publish this information?

On the one hand, Knight gave him as close to explicit permission as you can get. On the other, it was conditional and has brought more scrutiny to Knight than would have if there were no book published—I had certainly never heard of the North Pond hermit and likely wouldn’t have if The Stranger in the Woods hadn’t been published and then reviewed in Time magazine (which is where I heard of it and decided to add it to my TBR list). One of the things that is very clear in Finkel’s book is that Knight loathed attention. That being caught and subject to the mini-media frenzy was the last thing he wanted. Had he been able to live as he wanted, he would have eventually died in the woods and remained unfound, unsung, unmourned. By publishing this book before Knights death, did Finkel violate one of Knight’s conditions for permission? It’s unlikely we’ll know since Knight himself is perhaps the last person on earth who would ever issue a public statement or talk to a reporter about he feels about this potential violation. Ultimately, it isn’t clear if The Stranger in the Woods is a celebration of Knight or the most glaring of the violations of Knight’s privacy after he was caught.

Recommendation
For all of the hesitancy I have after reading this book—particularly around privilege and permission—I still can’t help feeling like I want to recommend it. It was well-written. The pace and philosophical asides (which, admittedly, only skim the surface of the deeper themes) were well-done. It is a compelling, relatively quick read. If you aren’t troubled by the privilege and permission issues that lurk under the surface, it is a book that many would find highly enjoyable and intriguing. (So I guess sorry/not-sorry for introducing those issues to you that may now hamper your reading of the book). Knight’s way of life is challenging to contemplate and there is always value in reading about someone whose life is so different from yours that you cannot fathom living as they did. (I joke that I could do without people, but at the end of the day, I could never actually live as a hermit. At least, not without my dog to talk to.) So I leave it to you—if you can look past the two major issues above, it’s a book I recommend. If reading books where people use but never acknowledge privilege, it’s not going to be for you.

Notes
Published: March 7, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Michael Finkel
Date read: December 17, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Mini Reviews: Dear Martin & I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter


Joanna Kosinska

Over the last few weeks, two of the books I read seemed worthy of discussion here but I struggled independently and for different reasons over both in what to write about them for a full post.   I don’t know that I will do this often but today is going to be a mini review of both. (And, it turns out, they share a book birthday! #serenedipity).

First up is Dear Martin by Nic Stone.

Synopsis
Justyce McAllister is a top student at one of the best prep schools in Atlanta. He also happens to be one of the only black students in the almost-entirely-white school. In the first chapters of the book, Justyce is aggressively detained by a white police officer over a misunderstanding—an encounter that leaves Justyce shaken. He begins to write letters to Martin Luther King to process through what it would mean to live by Dr. King’s nonviolent principles in a world that still seems hell-bent on forcing subjugation or violent confrontation on African Americans. A second encounter leaves Justyce grieving and grappling with the media spotlight.

The Hate U Give parallels
In many ways, Dear Martin, is strikingly like The Hate U Give—this is, in fact, one of the reasons I wasn’t sure I could do a full post justice. Many of the social justice issues I raised and linked to in that post apply equally. Justyce, like Starr, is one of the only black students at an all-white private school, has a white love interest, experiences micro-aggressions on a daily basis, and becomes a witness to an officer-involved shooting. Despite all of these commonalities, Dear Martin still feels fresh, relevant, and far from repetitive.

Dear Martin goes places The Hate U Give doesn’t—Justyce himself is detained by the police, he becomes hopeless enough that he’s drawn to a gang, he’s maligned in the media as a thug—this being the justification for an officer shooting at Justyce and his friend. Where the major characters in The Hate U Give were all either living in the poor areas Starr lives or, at best, a middle class neighborhood, Justyce finds himself surrounded by a world of money. With this change and the events that throw Justyce unwittingly into the spotlight, Stone is able to explore more fully the ideas of black “respectability” and the idea that, at the end of the day, when it comes to many encounters with white authority/law enforcement, a rich black teenager is just another black man and is just as likely to be killed by police.

Recommendation
I highly recommend Dear Martin for anyone who read and enjoyed The Hate U Give. I also recommend it for readers who were intimidated by THUGDear Martin is about half the length and I flew through it in a day. If you’re still not sure what the deal is with Black Lives Matter—why its necessary—or what micro-aggressions look like, Dear Martin is an easy place to start. Justyce and the supporting characters in the book are believable and mostly likeable (except the ones who aren’t supposed to be). The book is tightly written with both YA and adult appeal.

Notes
Published: October 17, 2017 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Nic Stone (@getnicced)
Date read: December 15, 2017

Next is I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a National Book Award Finalist for YA Fiction.

Synopsis
First generation Mexican-American teenager Julia (not Jewel-ia) needs to get out of her parents’ house where the combined weight of her parents’ expectations and the perfection of her older sister is slowly crushing her to death in her roach-infested apartment. Until Julia’s sister dies and Julia begins to discover things about her sister that she just can’t let go. The deeper she digs, the harder life gets, the more Julia spirals until it seems there’s no way out. Was her sister’s death her fault? Can Julia ever feel free?

Hot-button Themes
Through Julia’s story, Sanchez is able to introduce scenarios that get at why many immigrants risk everything to leave their homes to come to the US, the dangers inherent in trusting coyotes to lead you across the border, the pressures many immigrant families place on their children, the extreme poverty many immigrants live in (particularly those without status who are then more vulnerable to exploitation), and the stigma of mental illness—both generally and within specific communities. Sanchez handles each of these with aplomb and gentleness, particularly the last.

Why Not a Full Review?
I’ve mentioned a few times that certain books—again, THUG—aren’t written for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them but that at the end of the day I’m not the audience the reader had in mind when she wrote a book. I can learn from these books but I’ll never be able to fully identify with the main characters.   I still chose to review books like THUG in hopes that my blog might lead someone to pick them up who wouldn’t have previously, while acknowledging that my review would not be able to do full justice to the lived experience of those who look like and live like the characters. There are things I will never truly understand, as a woman with all of the privileges except the gender one.

My inability to fully review a book like this was never more true than with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The book has short conversations and ideas expressed in Spanish that went almost entirely over my head. There were also some significant cultural themes that I knew enough to recognize there was something happening that I didn’t fully understand. My reading of this book was likely only the top of the iceberg.

Representation Matters
With that said, I believe down to my bones that representation matters. That we need books like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, THUG, and American Street—books that are written by people of color about people of color and the unique struggles they continue to face in this country. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book and there are not enough opportunities for non-white teenagers to see themselves in books of this caliber. For white audiences, these characters embody the grey of the black-and-white news stories on “illegal immigrants”* and yet another African American slain by cops for chewing his gum the wrong way in the “wrong” neighborhood (re: the nice one). I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be read by first generation Latinx teenagers who can’t remember the last time they saw someone who looked and talked like them in a book. It should also be read by the white woman who doesn’t have close friends without status, because even she should have exposure to these themes.

Notes
Published: October 17, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf / @knopfteen)
Author: Erika L. Sanchez (@erikalsanchez)
Date read: December 6, 2017

*Do not get me started on how it is impossible for a human being to be illegal.

Review: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve


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“The fire runs underground?” Grace asks.
“Yep.”
She imagines secret fires tunneling beneath the house. “But how? There’s no oxygen.”
“There’s oxygen in peat and dead vegetation,” Gene explains. The fires move solely beneath the surface, he adds, burning enough to bring more oxygen into the soil. They can burn, undetected, for months, for years.

In October 1947, coastal Maine was ravaged by devastating fires. Sixteen people were killed and more than twenty separate fires burned throughout the state. Against this backdrop, Shreve introduces us to Grace, a housewife whose surface life is everything she thought she always wanted—two children and a successful husband who comes home to her every night. Its only as the fires take everything from Grace that she is faced with deciding what she really wants and, in turn, who that makes her.

Grace as a Survivor

I struggled with this review more than with others, simply because it is difficult to talk abut the evolution of Grace without giving away major plot points that, like a new shoot of growth, she must grow around or risk dying out. As I thought through writing this review, the thought I kept circling back to is that this is the story of surviving a violent relationship, yet most readers will not see it as such. Grace’s husband Gene, in his callousness, his entitlement, stifles and chokes Grace, nearly extinguishing her, yet almost never places his hands on her. Even in those moments, because of the way Shreve has developed the story, because of how familiar Grace’s unhappiness in her marriage feels, the reader is disinclined to jump to recognizing the violence—both emotional and physical—for what it is. Let me disillusion you. From working with survivors of violence and being one myself, this is what a violent relationship looks like. It is not all hits and slaps. It is the contempt Gene feels for Grace. The attempts to isolate. The gas-lighting. Grace is what it looks like to be a survivor.

The violent marital relationship, however, is not the main point of the book. Grace is not defined by Gene—a fact she has to come to realize herself as the fire, having burned away almost everything she thought she knew and held dear, instead gives her room to breathe for the first time. Just as some forests cannot live until the underbrush choking the tender new growth is burned away, so Grace cannot live until the fire burns away everything she knows.

“Classic” Anita Shreve

Admittedly, I have only read one other Anita Shreve and that was quite some time ago; however, this book has much of what I think of as Shrevian characteristics. Her language sizzles and smokes. Shreve writes in juxtapositions, highlighting the brightest whites with the inkiest blacks. Maine first goes through a wet season—so wet that once a dry day finally comes the white laundry flaps on the lines so that “it looked as though an entire town of women had surrendered.” The town, having nearly been destroyed by flood must now contend (or fall) to an all-consuming fire.

Her descriptions are neither lush nor spare, striking the right balance that leaves the reader well acquainted with their new surroundings in Grace’s world in Maine without feeling overwhelmed or slowed by strings of adjectives. There’s a more sex than I typically prefer in my reading; however, nothing that becomes gratuitous. No one is mistaking this book for a Harlequin anytime soon.

Her main character is a female who initially comes across as a shrinking violet before being faced with a series of plot twists that force Grace to either stand or fall on her own. The relationships among women are paramount, with Rosie being Grace’s anchor and safe place to land.

The Friendships of Women

Shreve shines with Rosie. The initial impression is that she’s a bit of a mess—her house is always cluttered, Grace has to save her and her children from the fire—and yet, Rosie is happy. Rosie is fulfilled and loved in her relationships and, as a result, Grace is drawn to her and to what she doesn’t have. I loved Rosie and hope that I can be the kind of friend she was to Grace. Without giving away more, I was pleased with Shreve’s use of Rosie and glad she stayed a part of the story for Grace despite their physical distance after the fire.

Notes
Published: April 18, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Anita Shreve
Date read: July 2, 2017
Rating: 3.5 stars