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9 Books I’ve Read Since the Last Book Report

20 Feb

Two things I do in random and unpredictable spurts: read and blog. So, if you want something that’ll really keep you on your toes, just try and figure out when the hell I’ll blog about the things I’ve read. Here’s a not-all-that-well-thought-out rundown of the last 9 books I’ve read:

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Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — I’ve been a fan of Adichie’s writing since college, and really, really looked forward to her first full-length novel in awhile. And, for the most part, this one was worth the wait. Americanah splits its time between America and Nigeria, and it’s not always clear which is more comfortable for the author or her characters. Where Adichie focuses her attention on the peculiarities of experiencing a new nation for the first time as an immigrant from Nigeria, the writing is sharp and the observations are as funny as they are true. But the clarity of wit loses its focus in the middle section of the book, where critical views of liberal whites feel like watered-down tellings of jokes from White Teeth, and in the final section, which takes place in Nigeria and feels a bit like a Nollywood production of The Notebook. All that said–I’d read Adichie’s second-string writing anyday, and think you should read this one, too.

Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue — While we’re talking about West African immigrants, let’s chat about this guy. I am, of course, biased to any book by and about Cameroonians in America, but I can say with certainty that this book is enjoyable even without a serving of fufu on the side. Behold the Dreamers follows a Cameroonian family living in New York City just before the financial meltdown of 2008. There are immigration status struggles, examinations of what it means to live the American Dream, and a variety of representations of the choices one family makes to integrate into American society while maintaining the parts of Cameroon dear to them. Despite those big topics, Behold the Dreamers manages to stay just this side of “really heavy” and is about the closest I’ll ever get to a beach read.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout — For the love of all things holy, just go buy this book and read it. I resisted reading it based on the been-there-done-that gist alone: a woman is hospitalized in Manhattan, her mother comes to visit from a small town, family secrets come tumbling out. What I found, though, was a sparse novel that could carry the full weight of family dysfunction, unfulfilled dreams, and the ever-shifting line between love and resentment between two people who know everything about one another’s past and nothing about each other’s present. I LOVED THIS BOOK and I hope you do, too.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy — This is a book to be experienced, not described. It’s ostensibly about a young woman whose mother’s chronic pain have brought them to a revered homeopathic clinic in the south of Spain, but it becomes more surreal as it picks up steam. Levy manages to transfer the task of sorting through symptoms from character to reader — are the mother’s reported ailments real? are the slights perceived by her daughter actual insults? did anything I just read in the last chapter really happen? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward — oh, my my my my my. This book was everything. The story largely centers around JoJo, a 13 year-old boy who shoulders the burden of an inadequate mother, as he navigates the complicated terrain of a family both broken and reborn by death and loss. I cried more than once while reading this novel– the juxtaposition of the tender relationship between JoJo and his grandfather and the beyond-his-years observations JoJo makes about his own parents pack a one-two punch that had me all in every ONE of my damn feelings. But don’t take my word for it– Obama loved it, too!

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The Mothers, Brit Bennett — Hm. There are a LOT of things I liked about this book, and the rest of the world loved everything about every line of every page of this book. I am glad I read this story of young love, familial duty, and the struggle to heal scars left by one with the other, but the pacing felt uneven and there are moments where the narrative ties up in ways that feel more cloying than inevitable. I’d recommend it, but if I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t have racked up $20 of late fees for it.

Nutshell, Ian McEwan — I had been meaning to read something by Ian McEwan since 2006, and it was the one-line description of this book that finally sealed the deal: a soon-to-be-born fetus overhears his mother and her lover plotting to kill his father. It sounds like a gimmick, but the the pre-natal narrator doesn’t get in the way of stellar storytelling and attention to character detail… though I did have a hard time not reading the whole thing in the voice of Stewie from Family Guy.

The Nix, Nathan Hill — this is an epic.friggin.tome that somehow manages to address the lifelong impact of an absent mother, the challenges of healing dysfunctional family dynamics, annoying millennials, and America’s increasing insistence on self-indulgence. There’s a lot of stories within this book, and I liked some a lot more than others — but even the ones I didn’t like as much didn’t stop be from lugging this 600-page clunker around. And that’s a real endorsement, if you ask me.

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson — a slim little novel about growing up, friendship, and the things that go unsaid. Great book that unfolds secret by secret, this would be perfect to read in tandem with a teenager (or a whole class of them).

 

Two Timely Books

26 Sep

Presented with minimal comment: two absolutely phenomenal novels that, although set nearly 200 years ago, contribute immensely to the conversation of residual racism and racial violence in America.

The Underground Railroad- Colson Whitehead

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I have loved Whitehead since The Intuitionist, and was thrilled to find he had a new novel coming out. The Underground Railroad is a book that commands your attention from sentence one: “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running North, she said no.” What follows is a freedom struggle that’s as bold as it is devastating. Whitehead loves to veer his readers right to the border of fantasy and reality, and uses his penchant for the bizarre to blur the lines between the shocking realities of life as a slave and events so strange you can’t help but wonder if they’re true. Jumping through time and characters, Whitehead delivers a cat-and-mouse chase so fraught with generational guilt and ancestral entitlement even Javert might have opted out. The ending feels just a little too made-for-the-big-screen, but still delivers the visceral punch of a tremendous story told by a tremendous writer–Ana Duvernay, if you’re reading, PLEASE consider adapting this for your next movie! I would absolutely call this a must-read in 2016.

Homegoing: A Novel– Yaa Gyasi

Whew lordy, where to start? Gyasi is a Ghanian-born writer who moved to Alabama in her teens and, after graduating with her MFA from Yale, chose to take on the nearly impossible: tracing a direct line from the slave trade to modern systemic oppression using the stories of only two families. Not impressed yet? She does it by devoting just a single chapter to each generation’s character. And, for her final trick, she makes you care deeply about almost each of those one-offs as if their story had spanned the entire novel, not just a short chapter.

There is a lot to love about this book–it’s character driven, beautifully written, and never looks away from the cruelty of the slave trade and its lasting implications. One story branch follows an Asante family as alliances shift and colonial capitalism takes root in West Africa; the second branch follows the descendants of a kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured Fante woman through several decades in America. I couldn’t get enough of the West African  stories–Gyasi does such justice to the customs, character, and culture of a people usually mis-represented as primitive, hapless, and uncalculating. The chapters that take place in America, while just as interesting, lack the self-possesion Gyasi allows their counterparts in modern-day Ghana. There’s a bit of symbolism attached to the American chapters– we are meant to understand that each of the characters is representing something, drawing a line from past to present. A powerful point, to be sure, but there are a few chapters that feel just a bit contrived as a result.

This book is a wonderful insight into the struggle to be free, the systems that hinder progress, and the generational melancholy of people who are black in America. Gyasi’s command of history is tremendous, and her carefully-crafted characters become beloved tour guides to America’s dark side. Please let me know when you’ve read it!

Two Books to Blow Your Hair Back

18 May

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There is no way to talk about this book that will do it justice– just go read it. It was recommended by pretty much everyone in the book world (NYT Best Seller, Amazon’s 2014 Book of the Year, Darling of Oprah’s Book Club), and none of them were wrong. I loved this book so much I walked to and from the grocery store instead of driving just so I could read it while I walked.

The novel follows a family as they deal with the sudden loss of their teenage daughter, Lydia. They’re a biracial family (a dad who’s Chinese American and a mom who’s white) in nowhere Ohio in the 1970s, and Lydia’s death opens the wounds long-since incised on their relationships. Honestly, there’s no point in saying anymore– the strength of this book is not in its plot but in how carefully Ng guides us through the history of a family via one very specific period. It’s definitely one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time.

consequence

Last time I wrote about what I was reading, I was about half way through Consequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair. When I told people I was reading it, no one was surprised–my general literary interests are (in this particular order): identity politics, oppression, and stories about those who complicate oppressive identity politics. So the account of how egregious human rights abuses like Abu Ghraib became common place in Iraq and Afghanistan is pretty much a no-brainer on my bookshelf.

But this book should be required reading for everyone, even if oppressive systems ain’t your bag. I wrote last about how much I admire the way Eric Fair does not exclude himself when providing examples of cowardice, corner cutting, and callous disregard for human life and dignity. As I finished the book, I also came to respect his outright refusal to make a work of torture porn–there are no prolonged waterboarding scenes, no full pages of gory details. Instead, there are plain statements of fact that serve as an illustration of how in the hell we got here: forged resumes, faked credentials, and private corporations more than willing to look the other way in order to cash in on their lucrative government contracts. It’s an indictment of the military industrial complex and an endorsement of the military, a call to action and a plea for de-escalation. It asks as many questions as it answers, and complicates what we know with the simple statement of how much the American public does not know.

Next up: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. It’s DC Greek Easter and then finals so it may be awhile… let me know if you’ve read it, too!

A Book I Read, A Book I Dropped, and a Book I am Dying for You to Read

26 Apr

You can check out the first two books I’ve read this year here.

What I Read: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

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If you haven’t read anything by Murakami before, I suggest starting with his shorter fiction (you can start with his not-at-all-shabby number of New Yorker contributions)– his books often have long asides that are immensely enjoyable but don’t necessarily contribute to the narrative arc, and  his take on magic realism is what I imagine an LSD trip would feel like. In general I am not into anything even remotely fantastical, but Murakami’s command of readers is unmatched: he envelopes us in a world we can swallow, one where words and symbols are both plain and profound, then inverts it just enough to remind readers that he is in the driver’s seat–and we WILL be enjoying this ride.

Anyway, if The Interestings is about a group of childhood friends who stuck together through life even when they shouldn’t have, CTTAHYOP is a mediation on what happens when that group of friends is gone.We meet our protagonist in his mid-30s, an engineer with a lifelong self-prescription for colorlessness struggling to connect to a world of whose hues remain apparent-but-out-of-reach to him thanks to an abrupt and traumatic transition from the comfort of childhood to the confusion of early adulthood. Murakami gives us a few foils to Tsukuru, who guide him (and readers) through flashbacks and side stories in exploration of why he can never quite cross out of black and white Kansas to find the brilliant shades of Oz. If that synopsis is oblique, I’m glad– I love not knowing what Murakami’s books are “about” and just letting the familiar-yet-foreign world he creates unfold before me.

What I Dropped: Outline

I almost never don’t finish books–but when the pie chart of your time has only the teensiest sliver for leisure reading, there’s no time for words that don’t blow your hair back. I wanted so much to like this book: it’s about a British woman who goes to Greece to teach writing after a divorce… writing, Greece, and reinvention are pretty much my favorite themes. But the structure of the book made it difficult for me– the narrator actually has no narrative at all, rather she merely moves us from person to person as the characters she meets tell their stories rather than hers.

It is likely that I will go back and try this book again–the writing is compelling and there were some spot-on and hilarious depictions of Greeks–but I just never cared enough to keep moving through the book. Cusk was able to carry each story on its own, but failed to compel readers (or at least this reader) to continue from one to the next. Anyone read this? Should I keep going?

What I’m Dying For You to Read: Consequence: A Memoir

Holy moly. I’m about 1/2 way through this book right now and am not ready to wax poetic, so I’m just going to make the case for you to read this book so I can talk about it with you. On its face, Consequence is Eric Fair’s account of his time as an interrogator at Abu Graib–but truly, it is an indictment of the many, many systems that created conditions ripe for the abuse and horror of the prison. Fair takes his time getting there–as I said, I’m about half way through and we’ve only just gotten to Iraq– but no words are wasted. The writing is sparse and plain, and Fair moves us from his early childhood to his decision to deploy as a contractor to Iraq with only as much attention as a particular phase of life requires. He is objectively critical, and lays out events with only as much edification as he thinks is required to make a point. There are no tirades, no rants, no pontificating–just the facts as this conservative Christian man from Pennsylvania saw them. Most impressive is the way Fair does not shield himself from the light of his own investigation: he indicts himself and his own moments of cowardice just as searingly as his cavalier colleagues, indifferent supervisors, and clueless community members.

I’ll write again when I finish it. Please please let me know if you read this, too!

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