mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

reading recap: june 2018

I had a just-okay reading month for June. Here’s what I got through:

  • Revenge (audio) … Yōko Ogawa, read by Johanna Parker and Kaleo Griffith
  • Creative Quest (ebook/audio) … Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
  • Before the Fall … Noah Hawley
  • Fates and Furies (audio) … Lauren Groff, read by various
  • Bored and Brilliant (audio) … Manoush Zomorodi, read by author
  • Vacationland (audio) … John Hodgman, read by author

I loved Creative Quest and Vacationland, but the rest didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I was happy to get to some fiction, though, as well as one paper book. I’m still really heavy on audio; I’d love to have more balance and less time with technology. More detailed thoughts on all these books coming soon!
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book club: homegoing

Anthony and my latest read for Best Friends International Book Club was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Bonus: Homegoing was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list. Edited from the book jacket:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

WHY why why didn’t I read this right when I bought it, right when it came out? This is a BEAUTIFUL book. I was really fascinated by the subject matter so that’s why I originally picked it up, but I usually struggle with narratives that are set too far in the past. But Gyasi’s research for her debut novel is so extensive and her writing is so vivid that I became completely immersed within the first few pages. She managed to give three-dimensional life and personality to every character despite our only spending one chapter with each of them. Each chapter felt like its own short story but woven together created a rich, captivating tapestry.

I really enjoyed learning about Africa’s parallel timeline over the last 250 years to America’s (even if through a fictional novel). America’s past (and lots of its present…) is horrific and shameful regarding its treatment of its black citizens. But  Homegoing doesn’t play the “grass is greener” game. There’s turmoil in Africa’s past, too—wars, corruption, complicity in slavery (kidnapping and selling fellow Africans to British slave traders), cultural and social upheaval due to colonization and missionaries, ostracizing members of your own community, etc. No place, no country, no group of people on Earth is perfect. There are upsetting scenes throughout and Gyasi doesn’t sugarcoat, but does have a sensitive touch handling difficult material.

Anthony pointed out some excellent quotes that illustrate how wonderfully Gyasi connects everything in the book: the countries, the family’s separate generations, and real history. As I’ve grown as a life-long learner, I’ve definitely noticed this looking back on my grade school education (which I do feel was excellent, but there’s so, so much missing from textbooks and curriculum, between factual events and different perspectives):

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” (Yaw, to his students; 226–27)

I’m continuously sickened by the audacious privilege white people have enjoyed for centuries, in their feeling of entitlement to control everything and benefit, but are absolved from responsibility for any of the “bad stuff” resulting from their actions. These two quotes stood out to us:

“White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; not they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can’t be with they kids. … Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be.” (Willie, to Sonny; 262)

Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? (Marcus; 289)

This last quote from page 289 continues, connecting the Great Migration to Harlem of the 1960s, to the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, to the Prison Industrial Complex… basically what you could learn all about in more detail in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (another excellent BFIBC pick). It’s just a very succinct look at how the racial disparity and discrimination in the U.S. didn’t just “happen.” The system has been purposefully designed and re-shaped along the way to continue to operate in this function, but behind a more palatable facade.

In addition to the snapshots of very real history placed in the context of this one family’s parallel journeys, the family itself is compelling. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which beyond being helpful to the reader, it also struck me how unfair it is that I get to see this family tree stretch back to the matriarch, Esi and Effia’s mother, but the current generation, at least Marcus, the twenty-first-century American, will never be able to trace his lineage back to her, no matter how much research he does. His family has been broken and separated far too many times to get the full, clear picture. And I was so heartbroken by this knowledge, and even more saddened and outraged knowing for a fact that this travesty happened to countless families in America during slavery. I can’t imagine the feeling of simply not knowing, of finding that at a certain point in the past, the path of your lineage just… vanishes. What does that do to your sense of identity? Reading Homegoing, both the America and Africa parts, I was reminded of articles of recent studies I’ve seen floating around online about how we carry trauma of our ancestors, close and distant, with us—it is psychologically transmitted across generations.

I loved this epic family saga, and I loved reading it with Anthony for our book club. Ok if I have one tiny complaint it’s that the ending is a little tidy but whatever, I still cried. Homegoing is one of the most affecting and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I can’t encourage readers enough to pick up this book.

We also discussed They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (I’ve read it, Anthony was almost finished) and both LOVED it, and decided on our next BFIBC pick: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara. We’re on a fiction bender for book club lately!

Homegoing is my third of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read in March 2018.

an american marriage

I had to see what was up with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, the very hyped latest pick for Oprah’s book club. Heavily edited from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored. As their time apart passes, Celestial is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, which is fictional but undoubtedly all too real for many families. It’s a love story at its core, but through the lens of a tragically common situation black Americans face today. I’m not surprised Oprah (and probably many others) picked this for book club—it makes for excellent discussion. How can black Americans achieve the American dream when they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for it, when their achievements don’t protect them at all from persecution and discrimination? What about loyalty, or conditional vs. unconditional love? How do partners handle life-altering, stressful, major life events in their marriage? Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder? And more, like dealing with the stigma families deal with when one of their own is or has been incarcerated, nature vs. nurture, fathers and sons, etc.

I’m happy I listened on audio. The actors, Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis, did a fantastic job performing these characters and giving them depth, especially during the epistolary first half of the novel. Their delivery and emotion gave Roy and Celestial life; I felt almost like I was experiencing a play in person rather than listening to a book. That’s also a testament to Jones’s wonderful storytelling. My one tiny complaint is that the ending was just a touch too tidy for me, but it (along with the rest of the story) was completely believable.

An American Marriage lived up to the hype for me. Life isn’t strictly black and white, people are complex and flawed and both good and bad. It’s a powerful story about love, being human, being black in America, familial relationships, friendships, and reacting/recovering after the universe unexpectedly slaps you in the face and upends your life.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

the mountain story

I first put The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens on my TBR a few years ago, after it came out… I think I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it? But didn’t win. I became distracted by other books (as you do) but this came up again in my big audiobook search last week and I decided to go for it. I’m a sucker for survival stories, fiction or non-fiction! Edited from Goodreads:

On his 18th birthday, Wolf Truly takes the tramway to the top of the mountain that looms over Palm Springs, intending to jump to his death. Instead he encounters strangers wandering in the mountain wilderness, three women who will change the course of his life. Through a series of missteps he and the women wind up stranded, in view of the city below, but without a way down. They endure five days in freezing temperatures without food or water or shelter, and somehow find the courage to carry on. Wolf, now a grown man, has never told his son, or anyone, what happened on the mountain during those five days, but he can’t put it off any longer. And in telling the story to his only child, Daniel, he at last explores the nature of the ties that bind and the sacrifices people will make for love. The mountain still has a hold on Wolf, composed of equal parts beauty and terror.

This was a solid, compelling story, with several thrilling sequences and a satisfying ending. Maybe this is because I listened on audio (which was narrated well), but I had just a little trouble telling the women apart from each other, they’re pretty one-dimensional. I’m also not sure I bought Wolf, as an 18-year-old kid, being mistaken for a wilderness guide and mountain expert. Last quibble—I didn’t feel as immersed in the natural setting or as much a sense of perilous urgency as I have in other survival books I’ve read. The delivery and believability factor was just almost there for me. So, I think I was surprised this was more character-driven than I expected, which is ridiculous on my part, because obviously, just read the blurb! Still, I did enjoy the book—Lansens is an engaging storyteller. I liked how the sections were separated by days and how it’s told as a letter to the protagonist’s son much later. Wolf was fleshed out well with emotional depth and an unsettling backstory.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

the summer that melted everything

Another pick for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I’ve had  The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel on my shelf since it came out—even traveled to Singapore with me in the move. From the book jacket:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: The year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil. Sal seems to appear out of nowhere—a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings Sal home, where the Bliss family welcomes him, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town. When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome his self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperature, as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, some in the town, riled by the feverish heat, start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While members of the Bliss family wrestle with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

I was initially drawn to this book by the title and cover. And the title sort of aptly describes how I feel in the perpetual Singapore heat—the never-ending summer that’s melting me. I was pretty excited seeing a mention of Wisconsin on page 7 (“But did you know that in Wisconsin, there is a lake, a wondrous lake, called Devil?”), and I love Devil’s Lake! It is beautiful and clean with wonderful hiking trails and camping. So, I figured this will be right up my alley. Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did enjoy this debut novel. This is a Southern Gothic novel and it is dark, definitely not a feel-good, summery story, despite the title and cover art.

When I say it wasn’t what I was expecting, I mean that I thought there was a supernatural element to the book, that Sal really was the Devil. But he wasn’t. But actually no wait, was he? See, I’m still thinking about it after finishing. That’s always a good sign. More magical realism then, but the story was entirely real. I thought McDaniel did a great job of giving individual personalities and life to her characters, especially the Bliss family and Sal. I was captivated throughout, wondering what was going to happen by the end (because it’s pretty clear something major will happen).

I do have this in hardback, but I ended up listening to the audiobook on a whim since it was available. I really enjoy Mark Bramhall’s narration, but for this one it was a little too Southern for me—yes, ultimately this is a Southern Gothic story, but it was set in Ohio. I’m not sure why the accents were rendered as so deeply “South,” like an Alabaman or Georgian dialect. It’s very folksy and distracted me a bit.

I said this wasn’t what I expected, but it ended up being more. McDaniel incorporates social issues that were (and are still) super relevant—racism, homophobia—which gave Summer a depth I didn’t see coming. And classic, good-vs-evil kind of parables. Even though the premise of the actual devil accepting an invitation may seem out there, the rest of the story was sadly and upsettingly believable. While the plot is dark and unsettling, it’s also a novel about acceptance and love. I’m glad I finally got to it!

The Summer that Melted Everything is my second of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.