Bye, Blogger

I'm now at burackbookshelf.com. It's very exciting! All my posts are there now, and that's where I'll be updating. Here's a link to sign up from posts there.
Bye, blogger, you've been great for six years but its time for an upgrade!


Dancing with the Tiger

A tale of art, collectors, drug dealers, the Aztecs, and broken engagements, Lili Wright's Dancing with the Tiger (released July 12) is definitely an engrossing read. I am always dubious reading a book about a culture written by someone who is not of that culture, definitely cautious of the exploitation that can easily happen. The book centers around Mexican mask-folk art - those who collect the masks and those who make the masks. I think Wright shines best when writing from the perspective of the protagonist, Anna, even though I wish we didn't get all of her backstory at the very, very end. Anna is a 30-year old New Yorker who breaks off her engagement and travels to Oaxaca, Mexico to collect a mask for her father, said to be Montezuma II's funerary mask. (For those of you lacking on your Mexican history: Montezuma II was killed during the Conquistador conquest of the Aztec Empire). Anna is not the only one who wants the mask: there is a rival collector, the looter who found it, a drug lord and his hired gunman... they are all searching for this mask. I liked how the perspectives alternated, and everyone got labels except for Anna: there was "The Gardener," "The Looter," "The Collector," etc. It made the characters almost larger-than-life. My initial hesitation (Wright is not Mexican, and writing a story using Mexican traditions and characters) was proved a bit true, when I felt the story at times reduced some of its characters to mere stereotypes without nuance. That is not to say I didn't enjoy the story. I thought the descriptions were fantastic, and the pace zipped along. For example: as Anna is driving in the Mexican countryside with a painter, Salvador, she observes colorful laundry drying on a line and says, "One day, I want to make a book of photographs of only clotheslines." And he responds: "You think it is beautiful, and all they want is a dryer." And that small exchange of dialogue made me wonder if the writer was self-aware that she was writing about a culture that was not her own. At times, it was very hard to feel sympathetic for Anna, but maybe the literary world needs more female anti-heroes? I loved when the perspective switched to some more magical realism perspective - like "The Dogs" ("It was past midnight and the dogs of Oaxaca were howling again. The first dog howled at the sight of danger...") or "Santa Muerte" (the Saint of Death, "No one ever asks me how I do what I do..."). A fun read and definitely made me want to learn more about folk religion of Mexico. It also raised interesting questions of collecting and international museums. Rating: ★★★



Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, Homegoing, deserves all the hype it has been getting. It tells the tale of two sisters, born to different men and with vastly different lives. Gyasi provides her readers with a family tree at the start of the novel; little did I know that after I quickly flipped past that to begin reading, each generation on the family tree would get its own portrait. That I would constantly be referring back to the family tree as I read. The half-sisters, Effia Otcher and Esi Asare, do not know of each other's existence. They are born into different villages in Ghana in the 1700s; Effia is married off to a British man and lives in the Cape Coast Castle, Esi is sold into slavery and imprisoned in the dungeons below the Castle, sent to the American South. Each chapter in Gyasi's novel is alternates descendants of Effia's or Esi's, going through six generations. Effia's line stays in the Gold Coast, and you follow them through warfare, slave trade, and colonization. Esi's line takes you through American slavery, sharecropping and American prisons. Each chapter (each character) could undeniably stand on its own, and I found myself wanting more out of each story, and the power of short stories is that they build entire worlds in such a short amount of time. But it wasn't a short story collection, it was a coherent narrative. I read a review that critiqued Gyasi for making each generation have *everything* happen to them in that historical period, and I sort of agree that each person didn’t have to encompass every experience in that generation. But I also think it was powerful this way, and the scope and depth of the novel was so impressive. She writes how complicit different tribes were in the slave trade; as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "Gyasi is deeply concerned with the sin of selling humans on Africans, not Europeans. But she does not scold. She does not excuse. And she does not romanticize." And the way in which she chooses to end her stories are simply marvelous (so, I won't spoil, but encourage you to read for yourself). I'll leave you with a quote, an Akan proverb that Gyasi has chosen to start her stories with as the epigraph: "the family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position." Rating:★★★★★

America Today: 3 Non-Fiction Reads

Happy Fourth of July Weekend!! I have today & Monday off from work, so expect lots of posts as I go through things I've been reading on my commute. So much of this blog is fiction that I read, that I figured I would give you a snippet of some non-fiction I've enjoyed recently, themed around American politics. (You can always click on the "non-fiction" label on the left of my blog to sort posts by that).

Here are three books about the state of America today -- America & race (Coates), American Jews (Waxman), and American healthcare, childcare & education policies (Partanen) -- in order of how much I liked them. Coates is a must read, no question about that; so is Waxman if you're interested in the state of American Jewry. Partanen, while an interesting take on critiquing American healthcare and education, focuses too much on how wonderful the Nordic countries are, and how America must change to be ~*just like them~*. I'm grouping these three together because I feel like they all address a different part of American political climate today.

1. Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates
A completely necessary read that looks into the story of race and America and the state of racism today. Structured as a letter from Coates to his son. I don't even know what else to say about this besides you must read it, so I will excerpt the second paragraph of the book for you:
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body... Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt white America's progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
Rating: ★★★★★

2. Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel - Dov Waxman
Is it okay for American Jews to criticize Israel? Are American Jews united? Is there a consensus about Israel? Waxman does a fantastic job addressing these questions, and lays everything out very clearly. I particularly liked his table on "the Four Camps in the American Jewish Debate about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" in chapter 3, and then he goes in depth into each of these camps. He asks five questions in the table to differentiate the camps - Zionism? Who is at fault? Two-state solution? Public Jewish criticism of Israel? External pressure on Israel? - and that one chapter honestly put so coherently and clearly the differences between American Jews I would recommend the book based on that chapter alone.
Rating: ★★★★

3. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life - Anu Partanen
And we come to our last book, addressing the faults of American child care, education, and public health policies, in comparison to Nordic countries. Partanen does a solid job at demystifying the "Nordic welfare state" in a series of essays covering a wide range of policy. Throughout the book, she comes back to something she calls "the Nordic Theory of Love," and tries to persuade her readers that America could benefit from it. I didn't love this -- I think her scope was too large, and often the examples she was using felt like they weren't painting a full picture. However, it was a really interesting insight into Nordic countries and I finished the book having a much better understanding of family and education policy.
Rating: ★★★

Happy July! (And if you're looking for something more historical, my advice would be (are you surprised?) Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow)


Shylock is My Name

The Hogarth Shakespeare project was launched by Penguin Random House in October 2015 to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare; the project publishes retellings of Shakespeare's works by today's bestselling novelists. As of now, there are three published - Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time (The Winter's Tale), and the subject of this post, Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice). And there are more coming - Margaret Atwood's The Hag Seed (The Tempest) will be out this fall and untitled works by Gillain Flynn and Jo Nesbo will take on Hamlet and Othello, respectively. I have written on this before (see my "retelling" label), but I completely adore a good retelling of a classic. Re-interpretation of a well-known story in a modern context... sign me up. So when I saw this version of The Merchant of Venice, a play I read last summer in my "History of the Jews: The Modern Period" class, I knew I would enjoy it. Maybe my expectations were high going in, and I finished reading glad I read it, but I was a bit confused by the set-up of the story. Shylock - the protagonist (anti-hero?) of Shakespeare's Merchant - appears in this tale alongside Jacobson's modern-day Shylock, Simon Strulovitch. (For those not too familiar with their Shakespeare: Shylock is considered the most "influential Jewish character in English literature") I could not decide if Shylock was meant to represent his conscience, a ghost... but I eventually gave up trying to understand the mechanics of why he was juxtaposed against Strulovitch and just went with the story. There are two layers to the story: the conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock, and the modern-day tale of Merchant (Antonio be comes D'Anton, etc.) Jacobson offers a fresh take on a play, as the Washington post writes, "long experienced by many as a racial tragedy," and thoughts on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Anglo-Jewish relations. The NYT Book Review (ever my reference) calls Jacobson's novel an "ebullient riff on Shakespeare," a story that blends "purposeful déjà vu and Jewish fatalism." What I liked about Jacobson's story is the modern contextualization of The Merchant of Venice: what does it mean to be Jewish? The title of the story comes from the courtroom scene:
PORTIA: Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?
DUKE: Antonio and old Shylock, both stand forth.
PORTIA: Is your name Shylock?
SHYLOCK: Shylock is my name.
However much I enjoyed reading this, I honestly do not know if I would recommend this to you if you are not familiar with the original Shakespeare - without understanding the references, the nuance of the retold tale is lost. It is not quite a story without understanding the source material. I think Jacobson was well-suited to the task of re-imagining The Merchant of Venice, and I look forward to reading more of his work this sumer (The Finkler Question and J) and other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Rating: ★★★(★)


Thirteen Ways of Looking

Four stories (one novella and three short stories), Colum McCann's latest work deals with assault. While these are not explicitly what the collection is marketed as -- the lingering unease around physical and sexual assault weaves throughout the four stories. The eponymous story, "Thirteen Ways of Looking," tells the tale of the murder of an elderly man, a retired New York judge. The other three stories take you from Afghanistan to Ireland to an unnamed Latin American country. McCann's writing makes you feel instantly transported to these locations, and I wish I could've spend more time in that first one. That, really, was my biggest frustration with this beautifully written collection: I wanted more. I wanted that novella that started off the book to take it up entirely; the way it weaves into the character's mind and into the detectives and into the landscape of New York enveloped in a blizzard. But I also wanted to read more of "Sh'khol," the story of a mother whose son disappears.  Having read Let the Great World Spin, I expected all the stories to be interconnected, which probably made me focus on trying to connect them instead of just reading them. I now know they're not, just tied together by the theme of assault. And what adds another interesting dimension to the whole collection is that McCann is writing from his personal experience. He writes on his website: "On the 27th of June, 2014, I was assaulted in New Haven, Connecticut, punched and knocked unconscious after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted along a busy city street. I was hospitalised and spent much of that summer in and out of doctors’ waiting rooms from various physical problems that arose directly from the assault. Some of the stories in “Thirteen Ways of Looking” were written before the assault and some of them were written afterwards." (Go read the whole statement if you have read this book). And it's clear that the impact of this assault has come into his writing. Here's one phrase I loved so much I wrote down (unrelated to this whole review, but a glimpse into his wondrous phrasing): "the years don't so much arrive, they gate crash..." Rating: ★★★★(★)
P.S.Thanks to my Grandmother for recommending this & my mom for reading it during her book club so she had a copy I could borrow.


All My Friends Are Superheroes

On superheroes, Andrew Kaufman writes in his charming All My Friends are Superheroes:
Okay, there's this thing you can do, a thing you can do like no other person on this planet. That makes you special, but being special really doesn't mean anything. You still have to get dressed in the morning. Your shoelaces still break. Your lover will still leave you if you don't treat her right...
Interspersed with short biographies of the 249 superheroes in Toronto, his superheroes are real. They could be you or me, and they are a delight to read about. The core of the novella (or novel, I can't decide) tells the tale of Tom (not a superhero) and the Perfectionist (a superhero; in Kaufman's world, they all go by the summation of their powers i.e."The Battery" or "The Dancer"). On their wedding day, the Perfectionist was hypnotized to believe Tom was invisible; six months later, she has boarded a plane to Vancouver. Tom has the plane ride to convince her that he's hasn't abandoned her. The story, therefore, takes place over the course of this plane ride. I won't spoil anything. You will enjoy it, it is romantic, and it is delightfully grounded in the real world. Here is a snippet of a description  of a "superhero," to give you a sense of the universe within which Kaufman is writing: "The Couch Surfer: empowered with the ability to sustain life and limb without a job, steady companion or permanent place of residence..." The tenth anniversary edition was released in 2013 ("with new superheroes!" the back cover proclaims) and it is definitely a charming and enchanting read. It also makes you wonder what your superhero "power" would be Kaufman writes, in an aside:
It’s true most superheroes have funny names. But they have to come up with these names by themselves. Think about how hard it is. Try it, right now; boil down your personality and abilities to a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already.
Rating: ★★★★★



"We reach out to stories and can't help but make them our own."
I don't know if I've quite made the story of Vietnam my own, but I have definitely been drawn to the era after studying it all year. I added this book to my Amazon wish list (which is quite long at the moment, gearing up for summer reading!!) because of Vulture.com's 8 Books You Need to Read this April. Well, I'm only 2 months late, but David Means' Hystopia was an enrapturing alternate history story within-a-story, and a book I definitely needed to read. I found Means very in the tradition of Phillip K. Dick's The Man in High Castle. The core of Hystopia is presented as a novel written by a Vietnam veteran, Eugene Allen, before he committed suicide. But Hystopia is not just Allen's narration. Means also adds surrounding notes and interviews with people who knew Allen, causing you to distrust Allen's narrative but also search for the Truth of the story within the narrative of an unreliable narrator. Means imagines a world in the early 1970s where President John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war continues, and Kennedy created something called the "Psych Corps" (deliberately playing on Kennedy's dedication to the Peace Corps). The Psych Corps are employed to maintain the mental health of the nation. The gist of it is that they develop a drug called Tripizoid that "enfolds" PTSD-suffering vets (basically, suppresses the memories of Vietnam in veterans, the idea of "therapeutic amnesia" (term thanks to this review) that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro also addressed). The effectiveness of this is debated -- is not remembering anything better than remembering something? I won't get into it too much, but Means creates a vivid (really, the best word to describe his novel) alternate history of a destabilized America that is violent and wild because of continued involvement in Vietnam and the "enfolded" vets. The violence was a bit unnerving, to me, at times, and felt a bit gratuitous... But as Vulture wrote, which made me want to read the book to begin with, Means "brings rigorous interiority to the characters enmeshed in a violent, careening plot." It was hard to get into at first, locating oneself within an alternate reality (history, whatever you would like to call it) is always challenging, especially in Means' "dark acid trip of a novel." Here's a  review that does a much better job of summarizing the complex premise, and I will shamelessly quote it for you:
It’s a meditation on war (not just Vietnam, Mr. Means suggests, but the continuum of combat that links veterans throughout history) and the toll it takes on soldiers and families and loved ones. It’s also a portrait of a troubled America in the late 1960s and early ’70s — an America reeling from unemployment and lost dreams, and seething with anger, and uncannily familiar, in many ways, to America today. Perhaps most insistently, it’s an exploration of how storytelling — the causal narratives we manufacture in our heads — shapes our identities and provides a hedge against the chaos of real life.
As Eugene Allen's protagonist says, and the quote I started this review with, "We reach out to stories and can't help but make them our own." Once the plot gets going, you definitely cannot help but place yourself in Means' wild world. Rating: ★★★★


Hamilton: the Revolution

Have you seen, listened to, read about or have heard of Hamilton?! If no, I don't know where you have been for the last year???? If yes, continue on with this review! In April, the show's creator (who currently plays the titular role on Broadway), Lin-Manuel Miranda, released an annotated libretto (the text of the show) with Jeremy McCarter, who wrote essays to accompany nearly every song and profiled the people who helped make Hamilton. They wrote the chapter titles in the style of 18th-century pamphlet titles, so the full title of the book reads:

being the complete libretto
of the 
Broadway Musical
with a true account of
Its Creation,
and concise remarks on
Hip-Hop, The Power of Stories, and the New America

There is SO much embedded within the book: one, the profiles of all the main players who went into the creation of Hamilton (the director, choreographer, stylist, main actors and actresses, the historian Ron Chernow (who wrote the book Alexander Hamilton that Hamilton is based on, read my thoughts on that here)). Two, thoughts on its emergence and impact. Three, beautiful HQ photographs. And importantly, Lin's annotations of the lyrics. I admit I got swept away and read it all this morning; but its a mix of an essay collection, profiles, a coffee table book, and genius.com style lyrics (website that provides annotations on everything, unpacking references, meanings and influences etc.) There's so much I loved about this, and I know there is so much I missed and I will be re-reading it numerous times. Some things I caught on my initial read: One fun annotation (on Hercules' Mulligans verse in Aaron Burr, Sir) "listen, Mulligan didn't grow up to a be a statesman like Lafayette or Hamilton. But his name is just the best rapper moniker I have ever heard in my life. So he gets the most fun punchlines," and one excerpt from the profile on Daveed Diggs, the rapper who plays Lafayette & Jefferson:
Daveed thinks that seeing a black man play Jefferson or Madison or Washington when he was a kid in Oakland might have changed his life. "A whole lot of things I just never thought were for me would have seemed possible," he says. Even know, the show is changing him, making him feel more American. "I always felt at odds with this country," he says. "You can only get pulled over by the police for no reason so many times before you say 'Fuck this.'" 
Wonderful read, from the casual fan of Hamilton to those who are obsessed. Rating: ★★★★★ (c'mon, it's Hamilton, what do you expect). Some photos of what the book looks like after the break. (And here's a link to a higher-quality peak into the book that isn't me taking photos on my iphone)


milk and honey

Taking a quick break from studying for finals to write this blog post about a fantastic poetry collection I read last night: rupi kaur's milk and honey. A touching, wonderful compilation of poems and sketches about love, abuse, loss, femininity, womanhood and family. Divided into four sections ("the hurting" "the loving" "the breaking" "the healing"), the reader goes through kaur's relationships and healing with her. On her blog, kaur writes that the collection "takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look." One of my favorite poems:
i want to apologize to all the women
i have called pretty
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of when your spirit has crushed mountains
from now on i will say things like, you are resilient
or, you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that
Some of the poems were just a few words, others were more stream-of-consciousness. If you don't end up reading milk and honey, I encourage you to follow her on instagram, where she posts her poems occasionally (see an example after the break). In an interview with Huffington post, she says that she hopes readers will get out of her poetry "Comfort and peace. I want it to be something they always refer back to. Something they read when they need a hug or some understanding and no one is around to understand them. Something they can carry around with them. I want the book to be what I needed around me when I was growing up." Thanks to my roommate for bringing this book back with her from her visit home this weekend. Ok, now I should go back to studying. Rating: ★★★★★