Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is stunning. It really deserves a second read to see all the images and layers and questions, but there’s no way I’m jumping back into this harrowing story right now. Of course, one of Whitehead’s points as he takes his reader on a journey away from slavery is that this story is also the present. The reader should be devastated about this past and also about what we’re doing in our contemporary world.

The book follows Cora, a slave who escapes a Georgia plantation. The first 50 or so pages of the novel is straight-up historical fiction, but then Whitehead creates an alternate world in which the underground railroad is an actual railroad, with stations and trains. Moreover, he gets fancy with time periods. For instance, Cora leaves pre-Civil War Georgia and lands in a version of South Carolina that has skyscrapers and elements of history from the early 20th century.  The train travels to other states, too, and all of them incorporate different elements of social relations, racism, and the historical record. 

This book has all the terrible elements you’d expect from a story about slavery – so be warned that this will be a difficult read. I had a particularly interesting moment about two-thirds of the way through the story that reminded me of my experience reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When I read that novel, I was struck by how much of a hopeful reader I am. I really need to believe in the possibility of happily-ever-after. It became increasingly clear in A Little Life that I was going to need to change my expectations. In The Underground Railroad, I also had a prick of awareness that “the North” might not be the magic terminus of this railroad and this story. And that is part of Cora’s experience here, too.  Hope drives her along but her experiences provide evidence that the hopefulness might be fruitless. (Discussion question: Is this ultimately a hopeful book?)

The Underground Railroad is the second terrific novel I’ve read this year about slavery and its legacy. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is also brilliant. It would be interesting to read these two books together and discuss the authors’ different approaches and interpretations. However, I’d sandwich a book about rainbows and unicorns in the center, because otherwise your heart might not be able to handle it.

You can find an good interview with Whitehead here (some spoilers included). The Underground Railroad is the current Oprah Bookclub pick and a 2016 National Book Award finalist.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review of Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Last weekend, Seattle was supposed to experience an epic windstorm. We had one ten years ago, and it knocked out power for a while and made us all uncomfortable. Plus, my kids’ preschool was cancelled, and that meant that I was paying money for them to sit in my house with no electricity and nothing to do.

So my plan for this storm was to BE READY. The laundry was done. The food was prepared. I made sure the kids showered and wouldn’t smell for the duration of the event. I had batteries lined up for the flashlights and lots of candles (with matches!). I had blankets and warm pajamas. I also had liquor and a library copy of the new Maria Semple novel, Today will Be Different.

I imagined myself curled up, sipping a cocktail, wiping tears of laughter from my face. After all, I thought that Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? hit mostly all the right funny notes, and I expected nothing less from this follow-up. 

But then, after all that work to get prepared, the storm never raged. The local news sent all of its reporters out to various street corners to get blown around. They were supposed to say, “Look at everything being destroyed by this terrible weather! Look at me, barely able to stay upright in the gusts!” But, instead, the wind just went

*Puff *

and then died out.

One of the things that Semple does is parody Seattle and its left-leaning, often hypocritical hysteria. This kind of preparation-for-Armageddon is probably exactly the kind of craziness that makes her roll her eyes.  And certainly, the daggers she throws at Seattle (and left-leaning white people in general) in Today Will Be Different caused me to snort in appreciation.

But like the storm that didn’t happen, my enjoyment of this book never fully took off. The premise is that Eleanor, a middle-aged artist/animator/tv writer/graphic novelist (what did she do? It remained a little unclear to me), finds herself in a sort-of struggling marriage and a sort-of crumbling career. Over the course of one day, she stumbles toward getting her life together.

The thing is, however, there’s a darkish underbelly to Eleanor’s life. Her mother died when she was a child, leaving her and her sister to fend for themselves. Their father was often drunk and/or neglectful, and there was great pain around that. Now, as an adult, the estrangement Eleanor feels from her sister and the unresolved feelings she has about her parents seem to contribute to her inability to manage her life.

And that’s not really funny.

But instead of telling this more complicated story, Semple tries to dress it up in “comedy” (including an odd diversion to a sub-plot about New Orleans high society), which made me feel weird rather than wildly entertained.

This is still a good book. I’m sure many of you will read it and laugh at all the truly funny parts. I can see it as a satisfying novel to read on a long flight. However, I do wish that Semple had trusted us to be OK with the painful side of the story she wanted to tell.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of Another Brooklyn By Jacqueline Woodson

Another Brooklyn is Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel – but is it a novel? I don’t know. Woodson is queen of the “prose/poem,” and Another Brooklyn strikes me as a genre-blending work. It is short – just 173 pages, with brief sections of text and wide margins. The language is spare and unflinching.

My first exposure to Woodson’s work was with 2014’s Brown Girl Dreaming. That memoir earned her the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Another Brooklyn is marketed as an “adult” novel, but it is a reasonable choice for older teenagers, too. There is sexual content and some serious themes, but this coming-of-age story will still appeal to younger audiences.

The novel is a snapshot of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The main character, August, describes her friendship with four other girls, pulling the reader through the emotions of being  teenagers grappling with family tragedy, first love, religion, and betrayal. In this sense, this book has an “every girl” quality about it. But it is also a story particular to African Americans growing up in this particular time period. August is navigating her family’s journey from the rural south to the urban Northeast. She is navigating issues of class in the African American community. She watches her neighborhood experience white flight and the effects of segregation.  The strength of the story lies in Woodson’s ability to pull the universal and the particular together in a seamless way.

But if I’m honest, I wish that Woodson had put the meet some more meat on the bones of this work. I wanted her to fill up the pockets between the lines. There’s a distance that the prose/poem style creates that I wanted to bridge. I wanted to fall into this story, and the beautiful-ness of it pushed me away.

Critics don’t seem to share this concern. Another Brooklyn was recently longlisted for this year’s National Book Award.

Here’s an interesting interview with Woodson, where she addresses Daniel Handler’s infamous watermelon joke at the National Book Award ceremony. And here's her “By the Book” interview in a recent New York Times Book Review.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I know that I haven’t been blogging much. I have been reading, however, and I’m excited to talk about Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I know I’m a bit late to the party about this one, but I’m so glad I finally showed up. This book is in the running to be my favorite of the year.

And what’s remarkable about it is that it’s a debut! Wow, does the literary world have a promising future with this author in it! The story follows a family line from eighteenth century Ghana through the descendants of two sisters, after one sister marries a white Englishman and the other is sold into American slavery. One of the central themes is displacement, and the reader gets to explore all the ways that disconnection from family and identity and place and memory impact individuals and communities. There are a few times when the author tries to bonk you over the head with these themes, but these times are rare in comparison to the subtle magic of most of the writing.

There’s so much to discuss. Hello, book clubs! This would be an interesting book to pair with another intergenerational family story (for example, Anne Korkeakivi's recent Shining Sea) or with a contemporary nonfiction book about race (like, Coates’ Between the World and Me).

If you are someone who has issues with reading scenes of violence, be aware that all the possible, imaginable kinds of violence against adults and children are here. This is a book whose heart is about slavery, and the author insists that you encounter it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Review of The Past by Tessa Hadley

On the good news front, I enthusiastically read and finished The Past by Tessa Hadley. It has been quite a while since I was able to get into a zone while reading. And oddly, I think that in any other year I would have complained that this book did not have enough plot to carry it along. But somehow this story of a British extended family gathering at their crumbling summer home hit the spot for me at a time when no other book has been able to satisfy me.

I do like books where siblings or old friends reunite after a time away, and I also like books about secrets (as long as the secrets aren’t too terrible). In this story, four adult siblings, a few children, and a couple of “outsiders” converge at the old family summer estate to decide whether to sell it. While there, they find that they are forever impacted by their past and yet transitioning beyond it. And beneath this family’s story, there is a larger commentary on the way that Britain itself is changing (via immigration, urbanization, etc.).

This is what I pictured. It was featured in an article about dirt-cheap "doer-uppers" in Britain.
I really enjoyed these characters, and I enjoyed the author’s easy prose. Mostly, I appreciated being able to sink into another world after so many weeks of ennui. It didn’t hurt that I had a nice, long weekend away from the tension and traffic of my everyday life. This was the view from my vacation deck, where I spent several hours with my book and a gin and tonic:

For the first time in a long while, I feel optimistic about my reading life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Summer Reading Sloggery: An Update
I pilfered the above photo from some course materials about geology. The presentation is called “Mass Wasting,” and that title is so fitting for my reading life right now.

I guess 2016 is doomed to be the Year of The Reading Slump. Things haven’t improved much since I last wrote. And in fact, I’m not sure if I’m not loving the things I read because of the slump, or if the slump is due to not finding the right things to read. I do appreciate all of your recommendations!

I did read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for my book club, and it was disappointing. I really liked Tóibín's Nora Webster, and I also love immigration stories. However, all the grit of classic immigration stories was missing for me in this one, and the plot points seemed forced.

I also read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante. I know the whole world loved it, but I thought it was simply ok.  I read it in a couple of sittings. But Ferrante kept me at a distance from these characters, and I never fully lost myself in the world. (Will I keep going, though? Yes! Damn cliffhangers.).

In the good news department, I am half way through The Past by Tessa Hadley. This is a very readable family story – and a kind that I generally like (siblings getting together for a holiday; old secrets). So far, so good.

I am still trying to get my reading mojo back. I just put a few upcoming new releases on hold at the library in the hope of generating some excitement:

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, due out August 9
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, due out October 4
Trespasser by Tana French, due out October 4
Swing Time by Zadie Smith, due out November 15

So wish me luck. I am plodding along.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of Modern Lovers By Emma Straub

Two summers ago, I read The Vacationers by Emma Straub and was underwhelmed. I think I was underwhelmed because it was aggressively hyped as the ultimate “summer read.”  At the time, I compared it to a margarita at Applebees.  It looked like it was going to be a sharp cocktail of a book, but instead it was lemony water in a pretty glass.

With Straub’s new Modern Lovers, I just bought a second weak margarita. Don’t get me wrong, this book was completely pleasant. I did indeed read it on vacation, and it certainly got me from here to there and back. But maybe I’m just getting to the point in my life where I want to be moved in some way by what I read – I want to be deeply intrigued, or brought to tears or hearty laughter. I want to be able to say to a friend, “You have to read THIS.”

Modern Lovers is a book about mid-life crises. The main characters were members of a band in the early 1990s – and thus were “cool” and poised to live zesty lives. But marriage and kids happened, and they made compromises. Suddenly they had all sorts of questions about whether life was supposed to turn out so beige. There are several plot trails – a movie is going to be made about a band mate who died, and secrets emerge; the kids of the two main couples get together and face their own questions about what it means to live authentically; there’s a sketchy new age guru who moves to the neighborhood and offers new hope to one of the characters.

But here’s the thing – for a book that should be dripping in emotion, there is very little fire at the heart of it. Mid-life crises are usually pretty harrowing, right? Modern Lovers is a sweet story, and it’s difficult to do sweet and harrowing at the same time.

So, readers, please tell me – what are some books that really grabbed you? I’m looking for a little more tequila in my next summer read.