Do you listen to The Moth? It’s one of my favorite weekly podcasts. The true stories amuse, delight, and move me to tears every single time I listen.
There were a number of pieces in the new collection from The Moth, All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, which I’d heard and loved before. Reading these felt like visiting old friends, the voices of the storytellers ringing through clear and memorable.
What a treat to discover stories I’d somehow missed. Some new favorites included comedian Tig Notaro’s “R2, Where Are You” about finding understanding and acceptance with her step father, Kate Tellers’ brave look at her mother’s death in “But Also Bring Cheese,” Ishmael Beah’s “Unusual Normality” about his trajectory from child soldier in Sierra Leone to to playing paintball at a party in upstate New York, Carl Pillitteri’s harrowing end-times experience inside the Fukushima Nuclear generating station during the 2011 earthquake in Japan in “Fog of Disbelief,” and Cathy Olkin’s “On Approach to Pluto” about her decade of work on NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto, among others.
In addition to all the excellent stories and a foreword by Neil Gaiman, the book itself is beautiful, a hardback with a midnight blue matte cover and gold foil. This would be a perfect graduation gift.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.
As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.
On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.
Poignant and gut-wrenching, Han Kang’s Human Acts excavates the moments leading up to and during, and the devastating aftermath of, the 1980 Gwangju (where Kang grew up) Uprising of students in South Korea from various narrative perspectives.
Human Acts opens with “The Boy, 1980,” told from the vantage of Dong-ho, a young boy looking for the body of his best friend whom he saw get shot in the street. “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” (my favorite perspective in the book) voices the experience of that friend, now dead, one soul among a jumbled heap of bodies left to rot for days in the forest. As in The Vegetarian, Kang doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the body, she pushes characters to the physical limits of life and beyond; in Human Acts, bodies endure torture, carry the scars of mutilation, are mercilessly shot and killed, bodies bloat and blacken with decomposition. In “The Boy’s Mother, 2010” Dong-ho’s mother speaks tenderly to her dead son, addressing “you” as she wonders if her inaction played a role in his death. Dong-ho, both alive and dead, makes appearances in all of the narratives, which, as a whole, create a breathtaking and acutely brutal portrait of human cruelty, frailty, and endurance.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is the newest book from Chris Cleave, author of the highly acclaimed Little Bee (which I liked but didn’t love).
Set in London during World War II, the story centers on Mary North, a beautiful young socialite turned ad hoc teacher who falls in love (with the best friend of the man she’s dating) amidst the upheaval of war.
The premise sounded promising: young love, heartbreak, conflict, war, a distant era… But the book didn’t wow me. With a constant stream of snappy chatter and chummy condescension, the book reads like a movie from the 30’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, only less charming. While the narrative was peppered with some really elegant bits of writing, and the war scenes were harrowing and evocative, the romantic plot just wasn’t convincing and the emotional exchanges left a saccharine aftertaste.
The blurb from author Kevin Hearne on the back cover of Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures reads: “I don’t care what else you’ve seen in the bookstore today. Buy this book.”
Wake of Vultures is a thoroughly kick-ass, relentlessly awesome book. It’s the first in the Shadow series featuring one of the most original characters I’ve read, the half black/half “Injun” boyish young girl Nettie Lonesome. Nettie is tough as nails; she swaggers, tames wild ponies, slays vampires and other beasties, and braves the dangers of the old west where nothing is quite what it seems and everything seems like it’s out to get her.
Bowen writes with verve, creating a gritty, fantastical world that is as fierce as it is fun. I cannot wait to get my hands on the next book in the series: Conspiracy of Ravens.
Han Kang’s Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, is a dark, illuminating, and at times grotesque book about objectification and the body.
Broken up into three sections, each with a different narrative perspective, the story tracks the repercussions of one woman’s choice to become a vegetarian.
It’s a quick read; I read it in one sitting on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii last week. Did I love it? No. There were times I had to skip over sentences because the descriptions made me slightly nauseous.
However, I appreciated Kang’s seamless writing, the 3-section structure with disparate voices, and what the book reveals about how we/society view women’s bodies and food. Kang’s vegetarian is positioned as an object, and because we are seeing her through the eyes of her husband/her brother-in-law/her sister she is an object to the reader as well, of disgust, of desire and lust, of creation, of fear and perversion, she is an object to control, to feed, to persuade, to manipulate. And we are complicit.
A powerful read overall.
The Bear and the Nightingale, the debut novel from Katherine Arden, grabbed me from page one.
It reads like a fairy tale, complete with a strong-willed girl, a horrid stepmother, a fear-mongering priest, pagan magic, forest demons and water sprites. This book isn’t for everyone.
But if you read that description and are thinking “sounds freaking awesome,” you will be enchanted. Beautifully written and well-paced, it’s a darkly captivating story set in medieval Russia about a young girl, Vasya, born with the sight. She sees spirits in her house and stables and creepy demons in the snowy woods that surround her village.
When a new priest arrives in the village and turns the community against the old ways, against making offerings to the spirits, the spirits get angry. Crops fail, hunger spreads, and winter lasts longer and longer. Young Vasya is called upon by the spirits and demons to right these wrongs, to do so sacrifices must be made.
This is the first book in what is bound to be a great trilogy; the next will be The Girl in the Tower. Also, a book cover and package can really sell a book or do it harm. I almost didn’t buy this book because of the cover, it reads too dark and too juvenile. I prefer the bright and tapestry-like UK cover (left/top) to the American version (right/bottom). Thoughts?
Pub month: June 2017
Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quick, idiosyncratic book. While reading it, I wondered, as I often do with books that have been translated from one language to another, what was lost or untranslatable, what cultural quirks couldn’t be conveyed adequately or precisely.
The narrative takes place within the Nakano Thrift Shop and centers on Hitomi, the naive young woman who works the counter, and around her coworker Takeo, the owner Mr. Nakano, and Nakono’s sister Masayo, plus a host of other odd characters who enter their store. A romance, if you could call it that, develops between Hitomi and Takeo but is fraught with bizarre miscommunication and is built upon unsubstantiated feelings.
There is a blatant sexual underscore to the book. Nude photos are examined matter-of-factly, an erotic text is discussed openly and plainly, a romantic tryst takes place without much heat, yet the lack of sexual or emotional connection between the two characters you are meant to feel for makes for a somewhat boring and rather lackluster read.
Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred has long been on my to-read list.
Powerful and terrifying, the story follows Dana, a young black woman in 1970’s Los Angeles, who is “called” back to antebellum Maryland when her white ancestor, Rufus, almost drowns. She saves him and is returned to her own time, to her life as a writer, to the home where she lives with her white husband. Over the course of the novel she is summoned again and again to save this ancestor; she forms complicated relationships with Rufus and his parents who own the plantation, and with their slaves. Even though she saves this young white “master,” Dana herself is treated like a slave, forced into physical labor, threatened and physically abused.
The passages that take place on the plantation are stronger than those set in 1970’s Los Angeles, the characters are more developed, the story both brutal and riveting. Because the narrative is told from the vantage of a free, modern, educated black woman, the horrors of slavery are exposed with a modern lens, the cruelty of the white owners and the powerlessness of the slaves are juxtaposed with Dana’s loving and seemingly equal bi-racial marriage. Overall, a fascinating, fast-paced read.