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: 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.]

the secret history

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of those books that has consistently ended up on most-recommended and most-favorite lists for as many years as I’ve been paying attention to the book world online, and probably since it came out in 1992. I’ve passed it over at bookstores for years—it’s a chunkster so I was always intimidated—but several people were recently talking about it on Litsy and I noticed it on audio through my library app and decided to finally give it a shot. Edited from Goodreads:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

I enjoyed The Secret History overall. It kind of reminded me of A Separate Peace on steroids (or rather, cocaine? It’s set in the 1980s, after all). A bunch of students who are too intellectually big for their britches kill one of their classmates (not a spoiler, it’s the first paragraph). The rest of the novel you get to know these characters and the why and how is slowly unveiled, as well as how they met and the progression to the killing and its aftermath.

I’m not sure the blurb there is entirely accurate. I don’t recall the “charismatic” classics professor to be so influential, and it seemed to me that the group of friends weren’t so much “clever, eccentric misfits” as pretentious, haughty, elitist assholes. I will say that I totally believed that a group of early-twenty-somethings studying a lofty subject such as the Classics at an exclusive private college would fall into a mindset of superiority over their peers.

The kids are extremely obnoxious and unlikable. And maybe they forgot they’re KIDS, but I didn’t. They don’t drink beer; they drink mixed cocktails or whiskey neat. They don’t smoke pot; they do cocaine or other pills. They go on lavish vacations to Italy and stay in palaces. They go to a “cottage” to “get away” but it’s really a massive Victorian on the New England coast. There’s a lot of bullshit philosophical discussion and condescension among themselves. They’re not even all that interesting, personality-wise; in fact, they’re quite bland. Not that I need characters to be likable in what I read or watch, but these kids were just over the top! It was fascinating to see them dig themselves deeper into a dark situation of their own making, and seeing their over-the-top, imagined superiority unravel spectacularly. I wish the young woman character wasn’t just a love interest for the rest of the group, as is so often in ensembles like this.

While I did generally like it, I do think the book was too long—lots of scenes from the second half could have been cut. I’ve said it before that when the twist is revealed ahead of time (like here, in the first paragraph) and then the story is “told” from a perspective after the fact rather than “shown” in the moment, some of the suspense ends up lost on me. But it did have me curious, and Tartt’s writing is atmospheric and superb. She covers so many different aspects of friendship here, from how it feels to be accepted to the disintegration of a friendship, what you’d do and how far you’d go for a friend, I have The Goldfinch on my e-reader and I swear one day I’ll get to it! But thanks to The Secret HistoryGoldfinch has inched a little higher on my TBR.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

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.]

mini-reviews: station eleven and the last one

I bought Station Eleven right after it came out, and of COURSE I didn’t read it until two years later. Somehow it survived my Great Purge of Stuff of 2016 in the overseas move, and I finally read it last fall. Coincidentally, I won a copy of The Last One from a Goodreads giveaway right before moving too.These two post-apocalyptic literary books are often compared, and rightly so.

I had to work a bit to get into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and unfortunately (for me) I only got a little ways in before I had to put it down for the move, but when I finally picked it up again I flew through it. After a lethal virus sweeps the globe, a group of actors, musicians, and artists travel the decimated Great Lakes region performing plays and concerts to the few inhabitants left in the towns they pass through. There were a few odd things (like the dearth of guns/ammo and books in America after almost all of its citizens are wiped out… wouldn’t there be an abundance of these things?) but these minor anachronisms don’t detract from the story. I really enjoyed this thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction novel. It shifts timelines, giving you a glimpse of living through a societal collapse instead of just showing you the aftermath. Thus, rather than being strictly about survival during and after a global epidemic, the story is more about beauty, nature, music, art, literature, and culture surviving. It’s about humanity and connection. Station Eleven was one of my favorite reads of 2016. [Read in September 2016.]

Alexandra Oliva shows she is a promising, creative writer with her debut novel, The Last One. During the filming of a survival reality TV show, a pandemic killed off much of the population. The show’s contestants have been cut off from the outside world and don’t know what’s happened. One person, a woman known as Zoo, who continues believing she’s in a game rather than an apocalypse. Zoo wasn’t as kick ass as I wanted her to be and I think the book is a bit long and winding overall. I also kind of wish I (as reader) hadn’t known that the corpses, danger, and devastation Zoo comes across were real—it left me frustrated that I knew and she didn’t, having to witness her behavior based on being in the dark. But I liked the book in general. It’s thought provoking regarding the portrayal of reality in media (how much of reality TV is real?) and how it can shape your perception of people, the world, etc. I think it’s worth a read if you like post-apocalyptic stories. [Read/listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: heart’s invisible furies and child finder

I was really focused on non-fiction for a few months there this summer that I felt like I needed a good dose of fiction, and luckily for me there have been some fantastic new releases this year. Here are two that I listened to on audio last month:

Cyril Avery was born to a teenage mom in 1940s Ireland and adopted by a rich family who always let him know he wasn’t “really” one of them. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a beautiful, engrossing story of a man’s life and his personal journey to uncover his identity and where and with whom he belongs. I’m always attracted to literature coming from and based in Ireland, and I’ve been wanting a great LGBTQ+ story lately too, so this book pleasantly scratched a few itches for me. I’ll be adding more of John Boyne’s books to my TBR list, for sure. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

I loved Rene Denfield‘s last book, The Enchanted, so I knew I had to read The Child Finder when it came out. Naomi, a private investigator with a troubled past, is searching for a girl named Madison, who disappeared a few years earlier. As the plot unfolds through alternating viewpoints, you learn about Naomi’s past and why she is uniquely qualified to be the titular Child Finder, and also about Madison’s experience. It’s very dark and disturbing subject matter—child abduction and all you can expect that goes along with that but it’s not graphic whatsoever—so it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. But the writing is just as lovely as in The Enchanted, with elements of magical realism (but still heavy on the realism), use of characters’ imaginations, and an otherworldly quality that is emotional without being sappy. I didn’t dig the narrator so much, so I kind of wish I had read on paper, but despite that I did still get pulled in to the story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]