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.

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 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.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

shark drunk

Another great find from my epic audiobook hunt last week: Shark Drunk by Morten Strøksnes! It was a really pleasant surprise and I’m glad I gave it a chance. From Goodreads:

In the great depths surrounding the Lofoten islands in Norway lives the infamous Greenland shark. At twenty-six feet in length and weighing more than a ton, it is truly a beast to behold. But the shark is not known for its size alone: its meat contains a toxin that, when consumed, has been known to make people drunk and hallucinatory. Shark Drunk is the true story of two friends, the author and the eccentric artist Hugo Aasjord, as they embark on a wild pursuit of the famed creature—from a tiny rubber boat. Together, the two men tackle existential questions, survive the world’s most powerful maelstrom, and, yes, get drunk, as they attempt to understand the ocean from every possible angle, drawing on poetry, science, history, ecology, mythology, and their own, sometimes intoxicated, observations.

I like sharks. I’m not obsessed, but I’ve been somewhat interested in them since dissecting one in my ninth-grade biology class. (My teacher even fried up little pieces for us to taste over a bunsen burner! A little bit like chicken.) Last year, I saw a fantastic, eye-opening exhibit here in Singapore at the Parkview Museum called On Sharks & Humanity, a curated collection of works celebrating sharks and bringing awareness to our changing relationship with them and the ocean, including preservation and protection of these beautiful creatures.

Strøksnes basically uses the shark-hunting trip with his friend as an excuse to talk about myriad topics, so it’s a little all over the place, but it’s a delightful book that’s more about the journey than the destination. I loved all the “fun facts,” from oceanography and the mysteries of the sea, to mythology and literature and history, to life in small Scandinavian fishing villages, and more. It was a little like being in the boat with the two of them, waiting and waiting and waiting for this shark to bite, and having access to Strøksnes’s mind as it wanders across all these topics, with some philosophy and personal anecdotes thrown in.

With all the horrible news of the world right now, this book was a good mental break that also put our place on this planet back into perspective a bit for me. A little bit of everything, and it was an enjoyable, informative listen on audio.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

book club: the glass castle and the power

It’s the latest edition of Best Friends International Book Club! To the left is a screenshot I snapped, that’s me laughing in the lower corner at Anthony’s antics. I love our little club!

Anthony and I had a lively discussion over Skype last week. In addition to our two main books, we talked a little bit about Into Thin Air, which I had read twice already and loved, and Anthony had just finished for the first time. And we actually stayed on topic pretty well! I’m really happy we chose a fiction. I’ve been in a slump lately, and for some reason reading a novel snapped me out of my funk just a little bit and I’m grateful. Maybe I just need an outlet for mental escape at the moment and I’m more in a TV mode lately than reading. Anyway! On to our thoughts on these two fantastic books:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls has been on my list for a very long time. I think at one point in grad school I even “borrowed” (read: stole) my mom’s copy for a while… only to return it eventually, unread, during some apartment move. With the new movie version out this rocketed back up to the forefront of my radar. I found it hard to put down, despite many emotionally difficult parts, mostly dealing with Walls’s neglectful parents. She recalls some truly disturbing moments from her poverty-stricken, nomadic childhood, including lack of adequate food and shelter. Glass Castle is an affecting look at addiction and mental illness. It’s clear throughout that her parents loved their children, but her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s manic depression dictated their lives. I found Walls’s writing to be even-tempered, coming across as almost neutral to her upbringing. She seemed (publicly in this memoir, at least) to be rather non-judgemental of her parents, and I think this may have helped the narrative. I was never put off by having to read through self-pitying diatribes or complaints, because there wasn’t any here. Anthony posed some excellent questions we ruminated on: What do you think is the larger takeaway The Glass Castle? Maybe it’s overcoming adversity, maybe a message about addiction and mental illness, maybe familial bonds, maybe reading a tough, depressing story like this makes us feel better about ourselves, maybe everyone has a story to tell? Or maybe nothing, it just is? Also, we wondered about Walls’s privilege to be able to tell her story, softly comparing it to another BFIBC book we read earlier, Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (brought up in rural poverty, overcomes odds to become journalist), although we both agreed we liked Glass Castle a little better in general. I watched the movie adaptation a couple months ago and liked it, Woody Harrelson is brilliant, but it does change and dramatize some things to achieve a standard Hollywood storyline, as adaptations do. [Read in December 2017.]

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about Naomi Alderman’s The Power… maybe when it won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The story is incredibly clever: what would happen if all of a sudden gender roles were reversed and women, not men, were the ones who held physical, political, and social power? Alderman explores this concept filtered through a handful of main characters as they navigate this new world where women and girls have discovered an newly awakened deadly, electric physical ability. It covers rape culture, religion, terrorism, politics, and more, all while turning gender norms and expectations upside down. At first, I felt empowered reading about these women finding a strength within and taking charge, but after a while I became uncomfortable rooting for them.”Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the stereotype/expectation that women are supposed to be pure, innocent, perfect little angels. Women are not necessarily less corrupt or violent than men, generally speaking. Anthony had a great point about how “the power” in this book wasn’t always about the obvious evolutionary electric power in girls and women, but also different kinds of power like political power, physical beauty, and manipulation. There are some striking statements, though, like when the power was first becoming known, boys are advised to go out in groups and not to walk alone at night, boy babies are being aborted, etc. Yes of course you don’t walk alone at night! As a woman I’ve been indoctrinated to this. But I never thought of the possibility of men having to live in fear for their bodily safety no matter where they are or what time it is, and being taught to take these kinds of precautionary actions. It made me angry that this never occurred to me before. Anthony also posed the question: Who is Alderman’s intended audience, women? Men? Both? Because it was really interesting to read and discuss this with a person of the opposite-identifying gender, for both of us. This would be an amazing movie, or long-form episode of Black Mirror! [Read in January 2018.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which we chose after hearing of her death last week. I’m a few chapters in already and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone is or what the hell is going on. I really struggle getting into this kind of deeply complex sci-fi fantasy, it’s not really my thing, so we’ll see how it goes. I might have to DNF. Our second choice is pending at the moment… we both happen to have copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock, but in February I’d like to consciously choose books written by black authors (I’ll finish whatever I’m in the middle of, but for my new reads for the month). Stay tuned!