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: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

You guys! I did it. I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin over the weekend. Although I’m glad I made it all the way through, that took entirely too long! Phew. I have some mixed feelings about it… review coming later this week.

Other good news: I think I may have gotten my reading mojo back! Over Saturday and Sunday I read half of Wool by Hugh Howey. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where a community of humans have lived in a giant underground silo for (possibly) centuries, following a strict set of rules. The punishment for those who don’t follow the rules is simple enough: you are sent outside to clean the silo’s exterior camera lenses. But no one ever comes back from a cleaning. Why? What’s really happening here?

I got this from the library for my husband to read (he has been interested in dystopian fiction lately), and I thought I’d read a little to see how it is. So far I’m (obviously) enjoying it! I think I might even be able to finish it in the next few days. After that I have a short book borrowed from my mother about the Solidarity Singers in Wisconsin, titled Unintimidated: Wisconsin Sings Truth to Power (the title is a shot at Governor Scott Walker’s memoir title) and I got Bird Box by Josh Malerman in the mail (also for Nick… but I’m not sure I can resist!) so I’ll probably move onto those after Wool.

What are you reading this week?

it’s monday, what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?
A weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Ladies and gentlemen, THE BOOK THAT NEVER ENDS:

Yes, I am still (always, forever) working on The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I started it on May 1. It is now June 2. I’m about 65% done (as of today). At least I’m over the halfway mark! (right??) Ugh. I just don’t know what’s up with me lately—why I’m taking so much longer than I used to with books. I really love Atwood, this shouldn’t be taking me more than a month to get through.

Could it be that I’m still recovering after possibly the most hellish semester yet? Still grieving my grandmothers’ deaths this year? Just too danged busy with other regular-old life stuff? I really have no idea. But at least with this Atwood, it is kind of unlike her other work that I’ve read, and in a genre and setting I’m pretty unfamiliar with and have mostly stayed away from (noir-ish, somewhat aristocratic, feels like reading one of the classics). There is a LOT to like here, though, and I really want to finish it (even though I am pretty sure I know how it might play out in the end by now). GRRRR! Atwood, dammit. I love you. But this is maybe ultimately not the one for me.

Also, recently my husband asked me to find him some dark, disturbing dystopian books so I’m finding myself getting attracted to that genre at the moment in my searches. Itching to read a messed up dystopian novel does not jive with getting through The Blind Assassin very well! I’m finding myself impatient to finish it so I can move on to other things.

What are you reading this week?