sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: bailed! lincoln, spaceman, game of thrones

I thought talking about a few books I DNF’d would be a fun change! Here are three books I bailed on in the last year.

I got about an hour into the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders before ditching it. Yeah, not for me. I borrowed this one from the library to see what the hype was about and I couldn’t get into it. I think with Lincoln, there are so many characters, so many different voices, living and dead, and it doesn’t read like narrative fiction—it’s almost like a play—that it was way too confusing on audio. I’ve heard that Lincoln is better on paper, but I don’t think I’m going to try a different format, though. I wasn’t crazy about Saunders’s Tenth of December either, though I did finish that one (wasn’t bad, just, again, not for me). And of course, now Lincoln has won the Booker Prize! The cheese stands alone, I guess. [Bailed in March 2017.]

I got halfway through Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia. I really tried—I had this as a borrow from the library on ebook! I’m the worst at reading ebooks! I was really disappointed to quit because I thought this was extremely interesting premise: Czech orphan grows up to be his country’s first astronaut, is assigned a dangerous mission to Venus, upon which he encounters a strange and mysterious giant spider with human features on his ship. Is this spider real; is it an alien? Or is it his imagination? Jakub’s personal history and relationships, as well Czech political history, dominate this book. I guess I was expecting more of an adventure story than philosophical novel about myriad topics… none of which were a giant, possibly imaginary space spider. Sadly, reading this just started feeling like a chore. [Bailed in April 2017.]

Sigh, A Game of Thrones. I love the show and I’m all caught up on it there. George R. R. Martin‘s masterpiece series is SO hyped and SO revered. I thought I’d give it a shot between seasons of the show. Again, I had this on ebook from the library and I really gave it a chance. 177 pages into this first book and I was bored to tears. The writing is just godawful, pure shit. Am I alone here? Maybe this will be my unpopular opinion of the month! [Bailed in December 2016.]

mini-reviews: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: house of leaves, the troop, and dead mountain

This year I’ve been watching more scary movies, but last year I spent more time reading scary books to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween! Here are three books I read last October:

Wowza. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves wasn’t quite what I was expecting—more spooky than terrifying—but I really enjoyed it, especially the story at the book’s core (the house). A young man named Johnny discovers an old academic manuscript written by a dead blind man in his apartment building. The manuscript describes a film documentary, titled The Navidson Record, on a house that defies logic, as it is apparently larger on the inside than the outside, constantly shifting its shapes and dimensions, and the family that lives there. House of Leaves is the manuscript, footnotes and all, as well as Johnny’s commentary, the documentary’s transcripts, and other random things. However, it appears that there’s no evidence The Navidson Record film exists. This is a book that people seem to either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It’s by no means an easy read, being ergodic, postmodern literature where you have to really work to follow the text, laid out in all sorts of ways (backwards, upside down, different colors and fonts, one word per page, footnotes that make you skip around to different pages… it’s like a treasure hunt). Johnny’s interjections were annoying at first but grew on me as it progressed; I found his devolving psychological state very interesting the further I got into the book. Danielewski’s debut here is really imaginative and I loved how the layout forces you to interact with the book in an unconventional way. What a mindf**k! [Read in Oct. 2016.]

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a great old-fashioned scare. A scout troop is on its annual, traditional camping trip on a deserted island in the Canadian wilderness when a pale, sickly stranger appears at their campsite. All hell promptly ensues. It’s creepy, gory, gross, and weirdly a lot of fun in a twisted kind of way. I giggled and eeeeewww‘d a lot while reading this fast-paced, gross-out novel. Even though The Troop isn’t particularly groundbreaking and its characters and plot are somewhat stereotypical, it’s still a good mix of campy horror and science fiction. [Read in October 2016.]

I can’t quite remember if I watched Devil’s Pass first, or picked up Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain, but my interest was piqued about a year ago on this subject either way. In 1959, a group of skilled young hikers died under mysterious circumstances in the Russian Ural Mountains, on the side of a peak known as Dead Mountain. Forensics at the time revealed they experienced an apparent sudden panic, ripping the tent walls to escape and fleeing without donning appropriate gear for the freezing temperature. The hikers’ bodies were discovered to have either met violent ends or frozen to death, with some having trace radiation on their clothes, and one even missing a tongue. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (named after one of the hikers), lead to decades of questions in Russia, and Dead Mountain is Eichar’s investigation into the tragedy. The author pores over the hikers’ diaries and photographs, newspaper clippings, government records, and more. He conducts countless interviews with friends and family, and retraces the group’s path himself. I appreciated the level of detailed research here. Sometimes the author inserting themselves into the narrative doesn’t work so well, but in this case I was utterly fascinated nonetheless. He reaches a solid conclusion (which does NOT mean the mystery is definitively solved), but he does explore all possible theories as to why and how these kids died. The 2013 movie Devil’s Pass was a fun “found-footage” mockumentary take inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and it also inspired a few music albums. I’m still intrigued. [Read in October 2016.]

mini-reviews: sorry to disrupt the peace and the leavers

Happy Monday! The great catching up on book posts continues this week starting with two books released this year that I listened to on audio featuring adopted protagonists:

Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is about a woman named Helen who travels back home to Milwaukee from New York City after learning her brother has committed suicide. She was adopted, and so was her brother (separately), but Helen has been estranged from her family for a while. At the time of her brother’s death, Helen’s in her early thirties, single, and is partially employed at a facility that cares for troubled young adults. She decides she alone can unravel the mystery of why he killed himself. Helen is an unreliable narrator and clearly has an unspecified mental illness, so bearing witness to her thoughts, erratic behavior, and questionable actions is an uncomfortable experience, and you experience the entire book inside her head. I didn’t have a problem with this, as the writing was great and I like novels that push me out of my comfort zone sometimes. There are many philosophical insights here on race, being an outsider, identity, finding where and with whom you belong, grief, loss, depression, and suicide, yet Cottrell crafts these heavy topics with an undeniable dark humor throughout. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I loved the premise of Lisa Ko’s The Leavers and find it extra important right now, with the current state of demonizing immigrants in the United States—an immigrant mother disappears (death? kidnapped? deportation? doesn’t matter), what happens to her American-born son? In The Leavers, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Peilan mysteriously never returns home from work one day. Her young son Deming is adopted by a white family and renamed Daniel. Daniel grows up facing his own demons, dealing with the pain of feeling abandoned, not belonging (race and adoption), and a gambling addiction. There was more to the book than I was expecting, with shifting narratives and locales. Although I think this one is too long, and I personally didn’t feel a deep connection to the characters, The Leavers is still a good book worthy of a read and sure to spark lots of discussion. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]