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.

reading recap: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

monthly recap image

mini-reviews: house of leaves, the troop, and dead mountain

This year I’ve been watching more scary movies, but last year I spent more time reading scary books to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween! Here are three books I read last October:

Wowza. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves wasn’t quite what I was expecting—more spooky than terrifying—but I really enjoyed it, especially the story at the book’s core (the house). A young man named Johnny discovers an old academic manuscript written by a dead blind man in his apartment building. The manuscript describes a film documentary, titled The Navidson Record, on a house that defies logic, as it is apparently larger on the inside than the outside, constantly shifting its shapes and dimensions, and the family that lives there. House of Leaves is the manuscript, footnotes and all, as well as Johnny’s commentary, the documentary’s transcripts, and other random things. However, it appears that there’s no evidence The Navidson Record film exists. This is a book that people seem to either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It’s by no means an easy read, being ergodic, postmodern literature where you have to really work to follow the text, laid out in all sorts of ways (backwards, upside down, different colors and fonts, one word per page, footnotes that make you skip around to different pages… it’s like a treasure hunt). Johnny’s interjections were annoying at first but grew on me as it progressed; I found his devolving psychological state very interesting the further I got into the book. Danielewski’s debut here is really imaginative and I loved how the layout forces you to interact with the book in an unconventional way. What a mindf**k! [Read in Oct. 2016.]

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a great old-fashioned scare. A scout troop is on its annual, traditional camping trip on a deserted island in the Canadian wilderness when a pale, sickly stranger appears at their campsite. All hell promptly ensues. It’s creepy, gory, gross, and weirdly a lot of fun in a twisted kind of way. I giggled and eeeeewww‘d a lot while reading this fast-paced, gross-out novel. Even though The Troop isn’t particularly groundbreaking and its characters and plot are somewhat stereotypical, it’s still a good mix of campy horror and science fiction. [Read in October 2016.]

I can’t quite remember if I watched Devil’s Pass first, or picked up Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain, but my interest was piqued about a year ago on this subject either way. In 1959, a group of skilled young hikers died under mysterious circumstances in the Russian Ural Mountains, on the side of a peak known as Dead Mountain. Forensics at the time revealed they experienced an apparent sudden panic, ripping the tent walls to escape and fleeing without donning appropriate gear for the freezing temperature. The hikers’ bodies were discovered to have either met violent ends or frozen to death, with some having trace radiation on their clothes, and one even missing a tongue. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (named after one of the hikers), lead to decades of questions in Russia, and Dead Mountain is Eichar’s investigation into the tragedy. The author pores over the hikers’ diaries and photographs, newspaper clippings, government records, and more. He conducts countless interviews with friends and family, and retraces the group’s path himself. I appreciated the level of detailed research here. Sometimes the author inserting themselves into the narrative doesn’t work so well, but in this case I was utterly fascinated nonetheless. He reaches a solid conclusion (which does NOT mean the mystery is definitively solved), but he does explore all possible theories as to why and how these kids died. The 2013 movie Devil’s Pass was a fun “found-footage” mockumentary take inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and it also inspired a few music albums. I’m still intrigued. [Read in October 2016.]

the secret history

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of those books that has consistently ended up on most-recommended and most-favorite lists for as many years as I’ve been paying attention to the book world online, and probably since it came out in 1992. I’ve passed it over at bookstores for years—it’s a chunkster so I was always intimidated—but several people were recently talking about it on Litsy and I noticed it on audio through my library app and decided to finally give it a shot. Edited from Goodreads:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

I enjoyed The Secret History overall. It kind of reminded me of A Separate Peace on steroids (or rather, cocaine? It’s set in the 1980s, after all). A bunch of students who are too intellectually big for their britches kill one of their classmates (not a spoiler, it’s the first paragraph). The rest of the novel you get to know these characters and the why and how is slowly unveiled, as well as how they met and the progression to the killing and its aftermath.

I’m not sure the blurb there is entirely accurate. I don’t recall the “charismatic” classics professor to be so influential, and it seemed to me that the group of friends weren’t so much “clever, eccentric misfits” as pretentious, haughty, elitist assholes. I will say that I totally believed that a group of early-twenty-somethings studying a lofty subject such as the Classics at an exclusive private college would fall into a mindset of superiority over their peers.

The kids are extremely obnoxious and unlikable. And maybe they forgot they’re KIDS, but I didn’t. They don’t drink beer; they drink mixed cocktails or whiskey neat. They don’t smoke pot; they do cocaine or other pills. They go on lavish vacations to Italy and stay in palaces. They go to a “cottage” to “get away” but it’s really a massive Victorian on the New England coast. There’s a lot of bullshit philosophical discussion and condescension among themselves. They’re not even all that interesting, personality-wise; in fact, they’re quite bland. Not that I need characters to be likable in what I read or watch, but these kids were just over the top! It was fascinating to see them dig themselves deeper into a dark situation of their own making, and seeing their over-the-top, imagined superiority unravel spectacularly. I wish the young woman character wasn’t just a love interest for the rest of the group, as is so often in ensembles like this.

While I did generally like it, I do think the book was too long—lots of scenes from the second half could have been cut. I’ve said it before that when the twist is revealed ahead of time (like here, in the first paragraph) and then the story is “told” from a perspective after the fact rather than “shown” in the moment, some of the suspense ends up lost on me. But it did have me curious, and Tartt’s writing is atmospheric and superb. She covers so many different aspects of friendship here, from how it feels to be accepted to the disintegration of a friendship, what you’d do and how far you’d go for a friend, I have The Goldfinch on my e-reader and I swear one day I’ll get to it! But thanks to The Secret HistoryGoldfinch has inched a little higher on my TBR.

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: 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.]