mini-reviews: americanah, what it means, beasts

As I’ve been catching up on these blog posts of book reviews, I noticed I read three books that center around Africa and African characters:

Why, why, why did I wait so long to read AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie crafted a brilliant, epic story about relationships, family, love, cultural identity, the immigrant experience, race, class, home, belonging, and more. I bought this years ago but was kind of intimidated to start since it looked dense and long (and it is), but once I got into it I found it difficult to put down. My minor quibbles are that it might be overly long—some scenes are repetitive of earlier ones—and Ifemelu could be pretty annoying at times. But generally this is a great book and I look forward to reading more from Adichie. [Read book and listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

So many great reviews of What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah compelled me to borrow this collection of short stories from the library, and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are memorable, with not one dud, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. There are a few that still stand out to me in particular months later, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” wherein a childless woman crafts a baby for herself out of hair, and the titular story, in which mathematicians have devised a way to eradicate grief in the future. Magical realism permeates a few of the stories, and most revolve around young women testing the waters of adulthood and wildness. I loved it. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

I requested Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala as my entry for “author born the same year as you” for the Litsy bingo reading challenge… which I quickly abandoned. Oh well! But I’m still glad I read this short, harrowing book. I had already seen the Netflix movie, which was excellent too. After his family is killed during a civil war in their unnamed African country, a boy named Agu is recruited into a group of rogue guerrilla fighters. The movie was quite faithful, but the book gives even more insight into Agu’s internal thoughts and fears. It’s fascinating to see how is psyche becomes increasingly warped in his new, horrifying reality full of fear, terror, and brutality as a boy soldier. I highly recommend both the book and movie. [Listened to audiobook in February 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: borne and made for love

Like I said in my previous post, I have been craving some good fiction recently. Here are two fantastically weird books I read in the last couple months fit the bill and will rank highly when I look back at everything I read this year! I read great books by both of these authors before and was really excited for their new ones.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, Rachel is a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic city in the near future. She holes up in an abandoned apartment building with a mysterious guy named Wick, who worked for a biotech company in town that may or may not have something to do with ruining the city. One day scavenging, Rachel picks up Borne, an amorphous, living creature she raises and teaches like a child, but we’re not sure of Borne’s origins or real purpose. Meanwhile, there is a humongous building-sized grizzly bear named Mord that flies (no wings) above and terrorizes the city. What. Am. I. Reading. I loved it—it was suspenseful and immersive, strange and compelling. Just like in Annihilation and his Southern Reach Triology, VanderMeer is the king of weird world building and psychologically eerie style. I had absolutely no idea where the plot was going and it was awesome. [Read in Aug. 2017.]

I was so excited for Made for Love by Alissa Nutting after reading her salacious book Tampa a few years ago. In Made for Love, Hazel leaves her tech mogul husband Byron after his inventions become too invasive. She stays with her aging father and his newly acquired life-like sex doll at his trailer-park retirement home, while trying to dodge Byron’s seemingly never-ending reach. Meanwhile, a second story line takes place involving a con man (think Sawyer from Lost) who is in love with dolphins. How will these people all intersect in the end? It sounds crazy and ridiculous but still makes total sense as you’re reading. I laughed out loud many times! I love Nutting’s absurdist but still kind of matter-of-fact style. This was a brilliant and imaginative story from Nutting and I was entertained and satisfied from start to finish. [Listened to audiobook in September 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.]

mini-reviews: brown girl dreaming, the hate u give

If you visit me here enough, you’ll know young adult lit is not really my jam. I have trouble with reading about teenage angst and melodrama, so I usually try to stay away from this genre. But in the last year I did end up listening to two good YA titles on audio:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of her childhood told in verse. I may have missed out on something in the audio, as I think seeing verse written down on paper can be powerful and give you pause as to what you’re reading, but I did enjoy the poetic performance on audio (read by the author). Her vignettes about growing up black in the 1960s–70s in New York and South Carolina give a special perspective on Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, conveyed in beautifully rendered, accessible way for all ages. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr balances between two worlds: living in her poor neighborhood and attending her upscale prep school. One night she witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend Khalil by a policeman. Khalil’s killing makes national news, protesting and riots start, and Starr is the only one who can say what really happened that night. It’s a good book, perhaps just a little on the long side, but at times there were conversations and scenes where I think the overall theme of police brutality against black citizens ends up in the background behind a “black people vs. white people, us vs. them” debate. Racism IS real, rampant, and a national disgrace that needs to be fixed, absolutely. As a white person, this is a hard book to objectively review. I acknowledge I don’t face discrimination like this, I don’t live the black American experience, and I know I have ingrained negative biases I actively work hard abolish in my heart (which I expect to do every day the rest of my life). And absolutely I agree that black Americans are overwhelmingly the targets of the majority of racism (just look at our shameful, horrifying history), and police brutality and racism in general needs attention and solving. But… I don’t agree that some issues and conflicts during scenes in this particular book are quite so black and white (to use the idiom) as the author portrays. I enjoyed the fact that this YA isn’t all about feelings and romance, and really appreciated the important, timely subject matter of this story. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

mini-reviews: the bell jar and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I’m not great at reading classics. There are some I remember from high school and just loathing (Their Eyes Were Watching GodThings Fall Apart) that I would definitely like to give a second chance. But there are some classics that weren’t in my school curriculum that I’ve always wanted to read, but have had trouble starting. Thank you, audiobooks! This year I’ve listened to a few, and these two complemented each other nicely.

I just finished Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal) a couple days ago. I really wish I had read this in my late teens or early 20s—I think I would have been obsessed! It’s an eerie, affecting book especially knowing Plath’s life story and her suicide. The writing is beautiful but also unemotional, if that makes sense. I didn’t quite get “insane” from Esther, but her mental illness does come through from knowing hints in the beginning to growing paranoia and intense questioning of her own thoughts and actions by the end. The electroshock therapy scenes were horrifying. I was really moved by Plath’s use of being trapped in a bell jar to describe Esther’s mental state—the distorted view from the inside looking out. It’s obvious why this is a time-tested classic. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

Many years ago I “borrowed” my mom’s copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and surprise! never got around to reading it. The audiobook version, though, read by Tom Parker, was fantastic and engaging. I saw the movie years ago but didn’t realize the book is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden. McMurphy is quite a character—he’s likable, obnoxious, and a troublemaker, but it’s a fight-the-power kind of trouble that I liked. Kesey’s no-nonsense writing makes you think more about societal roles, authority, mental health, and its healing and treatment practices in psychiatric institutions, at least during the 1950s and 60s. I’m still not sure if McMurphy really had a mental illness or not. This was a great, complex story that I’m glad I finally took the time to experience. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]