#50!! And just like that I’m halfway to my goal to read 100 books by the end of the year…
One of the things I appreciated about Berkeley-based Thi Bui’s gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, is that she opens her book with an intense birth. She is in labor with her son, and, by way of her lovely illustrations, we are in the moment with her. I couldn’t help but find a parallel between the “birth” of the book, the creative impulse, and Bui’s labor, the creation of life; the book opens, she opens, the story unfolds, a life is brought forth.
The Best We Could Do is a story of life and survival, of family and identity. Bui tells the story of growing up between two cultures, the story of her parents – where they grew up in Vietnam, how they met, the dreams of their youths, the realities of adulthood. It is the story of a country and a people torn apart, by colonization, by the Vietnam War. It is the story of refugees. It is powerful and memorable, a fascinating and evocative read.
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, the sweet sting of memory of aging.
“How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?”
Looking for a great Mother’s Day gift? Buy this.
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.
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.
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.
Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (isn’t that cover great?!) is the second book I’ve read this year in which a translator of books goes searching for someone who is missing. The first was Idra Novey’s elegantly written book Ways to Disappear which I read and reviewed back in January.
In A Separation, we follow Kitamura’s narrator as she travels to Greece, to a conflagration-charred landscape, to track down her unresponsive, unfaithful husband at the behest of her mother-in-law. We learn that she and the husband are separated, have been for months, but have kept the dissolve of their marriage a secret. The smoking Greek landscape, an apt setting, offers a visual representation of a marriage gone up in flames.
Kitamura’s translator, like Novey’s, searches for answers and understanding while “translating” her experience, communicating amidst an unfamiliar language, intuiting emotions of grief and longing, and reading into foreign interactions and expressions to glean meaning.
Here, the narrator straddles an awkward divide, she seemingly cares for her estranged husband because of the past they share, but is emotionally vague, neither saddened nor relieved, angry nor scared. “She,” never given a name or a description in the book, is a passive character whose cool remove heightens the sense of foreboding, feeds the estrangement, and structures the tension at the center of the plot.
The release of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid couldn’t be more timely. It follows two characters, Saeed and Nadia, as the unnamed city they live in is torn apart by violence and occupied by militants. They flee, becoming two refugees among many seeking asylum, a place to live, food to eat, a space to call their own.
The current refugee crisis echoes loudly through Exit West, as Hamid’s characters encounter folks willing to help them on their journey, and “nativists,” those people who want the refugees out of their neighborhoods, out of their country. Conflict arises. Loyalties are tested.
Hamid has crafted – and I use crafted purposefully here as Hamid’s writing craft is truly that of a master – a beautifully written story. Set in a world that is at once very recognizable, and vaguely futuristic, refugees escape through door portals, drones are a constant overhead, surveillance is everywhere, and known cities and places – London, Mykonos, Marin Country – are slightly changed, both familiar and strange.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s childhood friend became a mother she asked the author for advice on how to raise her daughter to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s response.
A quick read, Adichie’s letter offers up fifteen suggestions, including teaching her to love books, imbuing her with self-reliance, informing her about systems of oppression, talking to her about sex, and encouraging her to question language and to reject “likeability.”
I will read anything Adichie writes. Her writing is consistently smart and accessible, powerful and timely. And this is no exception.
I agree with my friend Guinevere who wrote in her review on goodreads: “While it is written as a letter of advice for raising a baby girl, every word was valuable to me as the parent of a young boy … it is equally important to raise boys to be feminists.” YES. This is not just a book for parents of girls. In order to create a more gender equal world for our children, parents also need to be raising boys who are informed, who call out inequality when they see it, who challenge gender roles, and who don’t belittle, take advantage of, or oppress the girls/women around them. The fight for equality cannot be fought by women and girls alone.