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: emperor of all maladies and when breath becomes air

Cancer is the worst. It fucking sucks. I can’t think of one person or one family it hasn’t profoundly effected, including me and mine. It’s a tender subject to me for sure, but I’m interested in absorbing information about it regardless. This year I finally swallowed my hesitation and read two books on cancer that I’ve had my eye on since they came out.

I’ve been wanting to read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee for a long time, but I was nervous and intimidated to start this book, yes because it’s a chunkster, but also because I was afraid of the medical stuff going over my head and my heart breaking. But, despite some long-winded sections, I was riveted the whole way through. It’s a combination of history, science, politics, and actual patients’ stories, but very readable and engaging. The amount of research here is staggering, and Mukherjee leaves nothing out. I can’t say there are answers here, that’s not the book’s purpose. But I did gain a better understanding of this disease in general, its many iterations, and how it and our responses to it have evolved since its discovery. Cancer is frightening, but centuries-long war between humankind and cancer involves experimentation (some of it truly horrific in the early days), ingenuity, progress, failure, persistence, and hopefully, one day, a cure. [Read in June 2017.]

Paul Kalanithi was on track to being a successful neurosurgeon and married to the love of his life. When he was 36, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of transforming in an instant from doctor to terminal patient, from someone who has his whole life ahead of him to having virtually no future at all. He died while working on this book. My heart both broke and burst reading this. Kalanithi lays bare all his fears and frustrations about losing his career and facilities, his marriage and relationships with friends and family, and his impending mortality. It’s a deeply personal, raw, insightful, beautiful memoir. More than one passage moved me to tears, but this one especially will stay with me: “‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.” [Read in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: dear ijeawele and it’s up to the women

This week, I listened to two short audiobooks on feminist ideas, one from 2017 and one from 1933. It was really interesting hearing these back-to-back, and both would be excellent for discussion in a book club!

First, I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest long-form essay Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I enjoyed both We Should All Be Feminists and Americanah, so of course I was interested in this one. Adichie can come across as a little snotty to me sometimes… there are a few inside jokes she mentions to her friend. But I can’t deny her excellent and articulate way with words. Dear Ijeawele isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, and neither is We Should All Be Feminists, but Adichie conveys basic feminist messaging with unapologetic power and clarity, which I appreciate and admire. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

Right after Dear Ijeawele, I listened to It’s Up to the Women by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is her first book, written in 1933. I think I had way too high expectations—it’s more of an instruction manual for housewives during the Great Depression than “feminist manifesto,” to borrow from the title of Adichie’s book above. Some of the observations are prescient and timely even for today, like the growing roles women should, will, and do have the progressing world. Some of the advice is pretty much only applicable to the time period in which this was written, though, and curious to hear considering Roosevelt never suffered the same hardships through the Depression as almost all of her fellow citizens. Her writing may be plain, but her earnestness and sincerity is clear in her suggestions and observations. Roosevelt is an inspiring historical figure, a forward-thinking woman to be admired, and it’s frustrating that her vision for more influence, power, and equality for women still hasn’t been realized in the United States 84 years later. [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: my life on the road, freedom is a constant struggle

I have admired the work of Gloria Steinem and Angela Y. Davis for a while, but haven’t read any books or essays by either until this past year! Here are my thoughts on their 2015 releases:

I won an ARC of Steinem’s fascinating, engaging memoir My Life on the Road from Goodreads. I didn’t know anything about Steinem’s upbringing, and she was so relatable here. I really enjoyed learning about her nomadic childhood, with her father’s wanderlust taking the family on frequent road trips, and how those experiences shaped her adult life both personally and professionally. I think this would have been even better on audio. A few sections dragged, but overall I loved how she used travel to illustrate feminism, organizing, and more in our world. She had insightful things to say about Hillary Clinton and 2008 primaries and election season, which was interesting to read just before the 2016 election. [Read in Sept. 2016.]

Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a great collection of selected speeches and conversations of Angela Y. Davis. The speeches in the last half of the book especially stood out to me; they connect race, feminism, civil rights, intersectionality, fighting for freedom, and more. Despite some repetitiveness, I think this is a must-read in these times as it drives home the point that several complex struggles we’re facing in the United States are also global issues. Davis is a fascinating, inspiring figure, and I’m awed by her brilliance and bravery. She’s a radical thinker and activist, and this slim book pushed my thinking on several issues. [Read in February 2017.]

mini-reviews: phenomenal woman and mom & me & mom

I simply adore Maya Angelou. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 2008 just as I was finishing grad school and was awestruck by her tenacity and wisdom and way with words. And then inexplicably, I didn’t read any more of Angelou’s books until 2014, with Letter to My Daughter.That’s crazy! She’s amazing. This year I made time to read two more of her works:

I was already familiar with two poems in Phenomenal Woman: the titular poem and “Still I Rise,” which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing ever. But the other two, “Weekend Glory” and “Our Grandmothers,” were new to me. Angelou awakens an empowerment in women with these poems, acknowledging women’s complexity, depth, and strength with an inimitable level of passion and wisdom like only she can. I read a library-borrowed ebook version, but I think I need a paper copy of my own. These are timeless and meant to be savored time and again. [Read ebook in December 2016.]

I guess I’m going out of order with Angelou’s autobiography series, having started with book 1 (Caged Bird) and moving on to book 7, Mom & Me & Mom, next! Oh well. I’m not sure they need to be read in order, necessarily, because from what I can tell, both these books stood on their own. This book chronicles Angelou’s complex relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, throughout her life. She loved and respected her larger-than-life mother, but it was ever-changing and sometimes turbulent. The writing wasn’t quite as excellent as I was expecting based on what I remember from Caged Bird, and there some jumping forward and backward in time with the events described. But this was still a fascinating relationship and life to learn about. As always, it was a pleasure listening to Angelou narrate her own words on the audiobook version. I look forward to reading more from her autobiography series in the future! [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]