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: ★★★★★


The Moor's Account

Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account is the fictional memoirs of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori (renamed Estebanico when sold into slavery), a Moroccan slave on the Navarez expedition. On the surface, this is an interesting point of view: a slave part of a conquering force, and his relationships and attitudes towards the Native Americans. 
He is believed to be the first black explorer of America, but Mustafa's testimony was left out of the official record (with the exeception one line in Cabeza de Vaca's chronicle: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.") so Lalami re-crafts his story, filling a missing gap in the historical narrative. As Mustafa's mother tells him at one point in the story, "Everything has already been lived and everything has already been told. If only we listened to the stories..." On a deeper level, The Moor's Account is a look into the power of storytelling and its spiritual qualities. It is split into two time frames that merge in the middle - one starting from Mustafa's birth and one from his landing in New Florida. The chapters are all stories - the Story of La Florida, the Story of the Sale, the Story of México-Tenochtitlán, etc. - and could almost serve as stand alone bits. Lalami received many accolades for this book (including a Pulitzer Prize finalist). I found all the Spanish characters a bit confusing, and I wish there was more description of his life growing up in Morocco and more nuanced female characters. But what I did love was the narrative itself: it flowed wonderfully, was told in the style of a 16th century travelogue, and fully absorbed the reader. As one reviewer wrote, "Behind everything he shows us - survival tactics, wars with the Indians, living with the Indians and the eye-opening encounters with the New World landscape so deadly and so beautiful - stands his own quest to regain his freedom. The world was not what I wished it to be, he says, but I was alive. I was alive. So he is, so he is." A remarkable tale, and Lalami gives an authentic voice to a lost history. Rating: ★★★★


Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay writes in the introduction to her 2014 collection of essays: "I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be." And she spends the rest of the collection proving that she is not in fact a "bad" feminist. Rather, she makes the point that feminism is not perfect. And it contains multitudes. And contradictions. And it demands intersectionality. I wish I was more educated on feminist theories and feminist writings, but there's no good time to just tackle everything. So I downloaded Bad Feminist onto my kindle and read it in between studying for my midterms (eventually, I got to a point where I was so absorbed in the essays that they stopped becoming my "study breaks" and just became my night). Gay has a strong internet presence; even if you don't end up reading this collection of essays, she has a lot published online and is very active on twitter. If you just want to read one of her pieces, I recommend How America Profiled Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (on media and terrorism and representation). And if you want to read another, on a totally different topic, Not Here to Make Friends is a fantastic look at likability and the importance of unlikable female protagonists (think Amy in Gone Girl). Even though you could probably read most of the essays online in isolation, the collection worked together very cohesively. The essays are divided into five groups: "Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me." Some essays are responses to specific cultural things (like "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help") or some essays are more address more general things (like "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence"). She covers a lot of ground, and I really appreciated the breadth of topics. A tighter focus may have made the collection a smidgen better, but I understand the importance of touching on a wide variety of topics. Rating: ★★★★


3 Historical Fictions

Some mini (ish) reviews for you as I start spring term... here are some thoughts on three fantastic (and very different) historical fiction books (spanning geographies and centuries) that I've recently read:

1. Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín
The novel focuses on the tale of Eilis, a young Irish immigrant who moves to (surprise) Brooklyn. She finds love, but must return home to Ireland because of a death in the family. Once back in her homeland, she cannot decide whether or not she should return to Brooklyn. Basic premise, a little predictable, but wonderfully told (and beautifully adapted into a movie) (even if you're not going to watch the movie, listen to this cover of  "Casadh an Tsúgáin" by Iarla Ó Lionáird). Tóbín explains “I could not have written the novel – I would not have bothered – had the emotions surrounding exile and loss not been close to me at that time.” Exile, loss, longing.... these emotions color the novel so strongly I finished reading it wanting to find out everything there is to know about my great-grandparents' journeys through Ellis Island. While the narrative of Eilis, her story is so universal that there's a magic in reading it.
Era: 1950s Where: America & Ireland Rating: ★★★★

2. The Book of Night Women - Marlon James
I read this Marlon James novel after reading his man booker prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings (another wonderful work of historical fiction, read my thoughts about it here). It was a harrowing read; The Book of Night Women tells the tale of Lilith, born a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation. The Night Women are a clandestine slave sisterhood plaining a slave revolt, and Lilith is indoctrinated into their cohort. The story is told from Lilith's perspective, capturing her voice (think Beloved by Toni Morrison). The story starts: "People think blood red, but blood don't got colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red..." As the NYT book review deftly points out, "James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable-- even the unthinkable." It was really difficult to read at points; the brutal, dehumanizing violence of slavery characterized the story to such an extent that I had to pause reading at times. But ultimately, worthwhile read; because slavery is a part of the history of the Americas that cannot be sanitized or forgotten.
Era: late 1700s/early 1800s Where: Jamaica Rating: ★★★★

3. The Secret Chord - Geraldine Brooks
The life of King David, the second king of the united kingdom of Israel, is told through the prophet Natan (Nathan)'s eyes in Brooks' deeply engrossing tale. I initially picked up the book from my library due to my faith in Brooks' narrative prowess (The People of the Book and Nine Parts of Desire) but I was a bit dubious, thinking that the only interesting part of the story was David & Golialth. And oh was I wrong!! Brooks tells NPR in an interview that one of the things that inspired her to write retell the story of David was "the well-drawn women in it." The women shine through in the narrative (here is my plug for Geraldine Brooks to write a sequel just focusing on Batsheba!!!). It morphs into a tale of power, love, faith, and family. The story of David does not really matter; while he does form the backbone from which Brooks writes, she focuses more on the peripheral characters of his narrative (his wives and sons and advisors) and imbues them with passions and politics and backstories. It doesn't matter if you're familiar with his biblical story or not - I promise that you will be sucked into the emotions of the tale.
Era: Biblical Where: Ancient Israel Rating: ★★★★★


American Reckoning

The blurb on the back of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity asks "how did the Vietnam war change the way we think of ourselves as a people and a nation?" And Christian G. Appy does an apt job addressing this question. I spent this past winter and summer working for an oral history project called the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, dedicated to recording the stories of members of the Dartmouth community who served in Vietnam or who were active in the anti-war movement on campus. I was fortunate to interview very different people - from a marine to a military chaplain to a conscientious objector to a draft dodger - and it sparked my interest in learning more about the Vietnam War Era. So, on the recommendation of my Dad, I read this. And I loved it. That isn't to say you have to spend half your year studying Vietnam to love Appy's American Reckoning (but I guess it didn't hurt). There were two main things I enjoyed about the book: one, the way it didn't just focus on the years America was involved in Vietnam, but the before and the after. Appy split the narrative into three parts -- (1) Why Are We in Vietnam, (2) America at War, and (3) What Have We Become? He went all the way up through the Obama administration. The scope of how he traces the roots of American exceptionalism is marvelous. Two, I particularly enjoyed his interweaving of pop culture. Appy starts off with a discussion of a book by Tom Dooley, Deliver Us from Evil, and touches on everything from the Ed Sullivan Show to Bruce Springsteen to Rambo. Analyzing American national identity is a hard task; but Appy is undeniably up for the challenge. The only drawback of the book for me was that it took me until chapter 3 to really want to read the whole thing; maybe because the beginning didn't feel like new material. But I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book, from the very end:
The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America's persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we were not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own. 
Rating: ★★★★


Trigger Warning

Neil Gaiman can be depended upon for a journey into the realms of myth and magic and ghost stories. So, I thought I would love his new short story collection. I adored Stardust and Neverwhere; plus, I had read one of his short stories in a different collection ("The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...") But, the stories as a whole in Trigger Warning just didn't quite do it for me. Maybe because I read the collection too quickly, and maybe it would be better to savor each story and pick apart the references lovingly embedded in each one. There were definitely some gems -- "Orange" stood out to me, as a series of responses to an investigator's questions, and "A Calendar of Tales," very short stories focused on each month of the year. Plus the theme of the collection - the idea of a "trigger warning" - was lovely. As Gaiman writes in the introduction (which was written in a very frank, I-am-talking-to-my-readers type of way, which I adore):
There are things that upset us. That's not quite what we're talking about here, though. I'm thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming... And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead. 
The collection felt disjointed when read all at once. Yes, there were touches of magic in each story. But I think had a few been left out, the whole would have been stronger. And because many of the short stories had been published elsewhere for different purposes, they didn't feel properly curated. It's like if you had gone to a museum and it was just a jumble of different pieces by different artists with no unifying theme. That isn't to say each of the pieces themselves weren't interesting on their own. Just they could maybe have been left on their own. What I can recommend of Neil Gaiman's work, if you're looking for a good magical read: with a love story: Stardust, for the YA set: The Graveyard Book, or a fantastic reworking of mythology: American Gods (seriously, go read American Gods if you haven't yet). Or check Trigger Warning out of your library and just read a a few of the stories. Maybe the lesson I learned is that I should read short story collections slower, or not feel the need to read every single story. Rating: ★★★


The Opposite of Loneliness

Marina Keegan died in a car crash five days after she graduated from Yale University in 2012. "The Opposite of Loneliness," an essay she wrote for commencement, went viral after her death. That essay becomes the titular piece of this posthumous publication, a series of short stories and personal essays. I started reading feeling weird that the main reason this collection got published was because of her death; as one reviewer noted, "if the reason people are reading her book is because they feel sorry or guilty somehow, doesn’t that undermine Keegan’s authentic dream to be admired for her writing, not for her biography?" As I started reading, I forgot that this had been published in remembrance of Keegan. It's just so enthralling and well-written. A Yale Professor who was close with Keegan edited the collection, and told the New York Times that she would be "beyond thrilled” at having published work, "but would add: 'Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.'  Even if the more cynical among us argue that her work only got published because of her death, I would argue that her talent -- which shines through in an authentic voice -- cannot be ignored. I think most writers strive for authenticity; for Keegan, it comes naturally. When I didn't forget the circumstances of the publication was when there were uncomfortable tinges of sadness and real-life foreshadowing - when she writes about her ideal future, or how she would like to die, or from the perspective of a girl whose hookup-maybe-boyfriend has just died. Another reviewer writes, "The experience of reading this book is extremely and uncomfortably sad." Nonetheless, I think it was a valuable read because irregardless of the context of the publication, her work is good. I loved her short stories; they were inventive, touching, and realistic. I'll leave you with the quote from her poem Nuclear Spring (happy first day of spring!) that started off the "nonfiction" section that I adored:
So what I'm trying to say is you should text me back.
Because there's a precedent. Because there's an urgency.
Because there's a bedtime.
Because when the world ends I might not have my phone charged and
If you don't respond soon,
I won't know if you'd wanna leave your shadow next to mine.
Rating: ★★★(★)


The Shepherd's Life

"No one who works in this landscape romanticizes wilderness," writes James Rebanks in his wonderfully enthralling The Shepherd's Life. I love that idea: that only those who work on the landscape can tell its true story. He begins The Shepherd's Life with the line "there is no beginning, and there is no end." He places his farming way of life in a larger history of five thousand years. I felt immediately transported to the Lake District. You may think of the Lake District and think of William Wordsworth or Beatrix Potter. Rebanks' Lake District is not Wordsworth's. He does not "wander as lonely as a cloud," he is firmly rooted in place. And his love of place, and of shepherding and farming and his family, comes through so strongly. The story starts slow, but builds into a captivating read. You fall into his world of sheep and seasonal rituals (his narrative is structured into four parts, split by season) and you don't want it to end (when it did end, I stayed up reading every interview I could find with him on the internet. This one is fantastic.). It made me want to go back to the Lake District and explore the land with a greater understanding of the culture. The Lake District (in northwest England) was my absolute favorite place I travelled to this past fall when I studied abroad in London and travelled England and read a ton of books (see my list of 2015 books, #s 21 - 52 are London). My favorite bookstore (Daunt Books in Marleybone) listed James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life as one of their top books of 2015 (calling it "literary magic from working life"). It was practically inevitable I read it. And I am so glad I did, for gems like this passage (from the "Spring" section):
I understand why people once worshipped the sun and had countless festivals to celebrate spring and the end of winter. It is this endurance in a place throughout everything that nature throws at it, year in, year out, that shapes our relationship with this place. We are weathered like the mountain ash trees that grow here. They bend away from the wind and are battered, torn, and twisted. But they survive here, through it all, and they belong here because of it. That weathering makes us what we are. 
He belongs to the Lake District, and the story of the way of life of the Lake District belongs to him. Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape, as the subtitle reads, extends beyond Rebanks' book. He runs a twitter that is filled with updates from his day and photos of his sheep and the land. For example, his sheepdog and a pack of his sheep (under the break):


The Bloody Chamber

You know how you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover? Whoops. The cover of the 75th anniversary edition of The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories by Angela Carter is the reason I read her wonderful collection of fairy tales (note that the collection is a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Carter's birth, not the story (which was published in 1979)). The blurb about the collection (once I got past the cover) (I'm serious its so nice go look at it) captured my attention, describing Carter as a "storytelling sorceress" and as someone who "spins subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends." There are ten tales in the collection, each touching on themes of female desire and sexuality, enrapture its readers. As one reviewer writes, "The heroines of these stories are struggling out of the straitjackets of history and ideology and biological essentialism." In the introduction to the collection, Kelly Link writes what makes the collection cohere is "Carter's ferment of ideas about gender and sexuality and story." My favorite story, besides the titular one (the first in the collection pulled me in because of the heroine's dramatic re-writing of her own story), was "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," a retelling of Beauty & the Beast. It ends, as the Disney tale does, with the Beast transforming into a man:
And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all the beasts.
In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," Beauty leaves the Beast's house, and returns on her own prerogative. And just look at that description!!!  "Such as the noses of retired boxers." In a later story ("The Lady in the House of Love," about a vampire), I think I re-read this passage about five times before moving on:
He has the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states: ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potentia, and furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance. He is more than he knows--and has about him, besides, the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France. This being, rooted in change and time, is about to collide with the timeless Gothic eternity of vampires, for whom all is as it has always been and will be, whose cards always fall in the same pattern.
The focus on male virginity instead of female virginity/purity, plus the off-hand mention of WWI that grounds the story in reality, and then the "timeless Gothic eternity of vampires" .... it all just works so well!!  There were other stories I wasn't as crazy about-- the sexual violence in some of the shorter ones (like "The Snow Child" or "The Erl King") felt gratuitous and uncomfortable at times. But maybe they were supposed to make me feel uncomfortable, I don't know. You should decide for yourself. Rating: ★★★★

Just Mercy

America must fix its criminal justice system!!!!! .... That was the big take-away, and a necessary one, from Bryan Stevenson's breathtaking Just Mercy. Part call to action, part history lesson, part memoir, Just Mercy weaves the three together around the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man on Alabama's death row. Stevenson founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization that "provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system." Just Mercy gives its readers insight into everything that the EJI works hard to achieve. In a profile of Stevenson, Desmond Tutu writes that Just Mercy "is as gripping as it is disturbing—as if America’s soul has been put on trial." As my mom said when she gave it to me to read, "this is a must read!!!" Now, my mom calls many things "must reads," but I agree with her on this one. I can't sum the book up in a brief review, but I can emphasize the necessity of reading it and educating yourself on the institutional racism, mass incarceration, the death penalty, children in adult prisons, and disenfranchisement of convicted felons. As the NYT writes, "Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done." Stevenson is hopeful that things will begin to change. Don't have time to read the book? Watch his Ted Talk, read (short) "The Prison Problem," or read (longer) "The Mass Incarceration Problem in America" Rating: ★★★★★


I, Iago

To be perfectly honest, I had not thought about the tragedy of Othello since I turned in my final paper my senior year of high school about Iago (the villain of the story). Shakespeare was largely a relic of high school English classes.... until today, when I picked up Nicole Galland's stunning novel, I, Iago. The story takes place from the point of view of Shakespeare's most dastardly villain, Iago. I don't know exactly what drew me to this story - I haven't read Shakespeare since turning in that paper, and I don't know what I quite expected. The pull quote on the cover from Geraldine Brooks called the novel an "astonishing work of imaginative empathy," so I knew the point was to feel sympathy for the villainous Iago. And Galland does just that; over the course of the story, she reveals a different nature of Iago than the villain of the play. She gives him a fleshed out backstory, beginning from his childhood as the fifth son of a Venetian merchant, through his military training and career guided by a desire to do what is "honest," and an overwhelming love for his wife, Emilia. The themes of jealousy run through his story, like through the original Othello (in Act 3 of the play, Iago warns Othello, "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on"). Galland's novel is split into two parts: "before" and "after." The "before" section is Iago's life until Shakespeare's narrative starts, and "after" is the narrative of Othello. The entire tale is wholly from the first person point of view of Iago, without the Shakespearean dialogue. I found the story highly readable, and it makes me want to re-read Othello itself (and god, does it make me want to re-write that paper I wrote on Iago in high school). I am a sucker for a good re-telling (I don't know how many times I've read Anita Diamant's The Red Tent) and I absolutely love seeing authors taking stories that are such an entrenched part of the literary canon and exploring new depths to the material. The only thing that didn't quite work for me was the  transformation of helplessly in love Iago to one who would murder the object of his love... it was not quite convincing enough (hence the 4 stars instead of five). But I really enjoyed the story nonetheless. Galland chooses a quote from Arthur Miller's The Crucible to start her story: "an hour before the devil fell, God thought him beautiful in heaven," thus setting her readers up for a tale of a wondrous fall. And wondrous it was... Rating: ★★★★


Jews and Words

Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, an Israeli historian, Fania Oz-Salzberger team up in this collection of four essays regarding the relationship between the Jewish people and the written word. Their source material is as old as Judaism itself, but they approach the way words are valued, understood and debated in ways that were new to me. The thesis of the book is that for Jews, as they write on the opening page, “ours is not a bloodline but a textline” (1). Jewish people find their unity and pride in identity in the written words of Jews generations before them; the Ozs demonstrate that Jewish heritage can be found within stories. The idea of a “bookish” culture propels them to unpack the consequences of what the emphasis on the written word and dissent means for Jewish people in the diaspora today. The father-daughter dynamic of the authorship shines through strongly, and the combination of story-telling and academia works particularly well. The essay on “Vocal Women” stood out to me, as a deft combination of humor and real textual analysis that navigated Jewish feminism, Israeli politics, and women in Judaism. One quote that I loved, and I believe sums up the nature of the essay collection, can be found in the “Vocal Women” chapter:
“Throughout the Diaspora—by which we mean diasporic space and diasporic time—being Jewish depended on spoken words, and increasingly on written texts. Women have no inferiority when it comes to words. Even the Talmud conceded that ‘ten measures of speech descended to the world, and the women took nine.’ If this is meant to be an insult, it is working the opposite way.” (96)
The combination of the Talmudic reference, the historical context and the aside to outspoken Jewish women today is an expertly crafted bit that is consistent throughout the book. In an interview with NPR, Amos Oz explains that the book is “meant to propose to Jews in Israel, in America and everywhere — and it means to propose to non-Jews — to relate to a wonderful line of texts, full of wisdom, full of humor, full of inventiveness, full of chutzpah.” Readers, in Oz’s mind, are therefore anyone who is interested in learning further about Jewish heritage through words. I would highly recommend it. Rating: ★★★★★


The Man in High Castle

Published 1963, the premise of Philip K. Dick's alternative history novel is simple: what if America and the Allied powers had lost World War II? The Man in High Castle conjures up a world in which America is under occupation by Japan and Germany, rocket travel is common, and slavery is legal once again. Cleverly, The Man in High Castle is also a story-within-a-story. The titular man is the author of an alternative history (within the history of the story) entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy wherein the Allies defeat the Axis. The bulk of the narrative mainly takes place in San Francisco, around the five characters: Bob Childan (antiques shop owner), Frank Frink (a Jewish-American who keeps his identity secret), Nobusuke Tagomi (Japanese official), Juliana Frink (Frank's ex-wife) and Joe Cinnadella (Italian ex-soldier). If you're wondering about how they all connect, don't worry. The novel expects you to be confused. It took me some time to get all the characters straight, and understand the quirks and lingo of the alternate reality. What inspired me to pick up this book a half a century after its publication was the new TV series of the same name (I'm a strong believer in reading before you watch) and (more honestly) the fact it was on sale at my college bookstore. I'll leave you with a meta quote from the last chapter (no spoilers, I promise!):
No wonder Mr. Tagomi could not go on, he thought. The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same... 
He thought, We can only hope. And try. On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components. 
The Man in High Castle challenges its readers to imagine another world, and in doing so, gives its readers a lens to examine their current world. Rating: ★★★★


The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro's newest novel, The Buried Giant, is a staggering historical-mythical undertaking. The story centers on Axl and Beatrice, elderly Britons living vaguely in the time of King Arthur, who travel through their "troubled land of mist and rain" to find their son.
As Beatrice says: “If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.”
Their quest is atypical; they move at a sluggish pace through their obstacles, and the challenges are described in retrospective, not as they experience them. Described as a "luminous story about the act of forgetting and the power of memory," I didn't feel as if it was the most powerful book. But maybe that was the point...  The mist of the novel is meant as a stand-in for memory - it makes people forget - and the writing was often purposefully confusing. As one reviewer writes on amazon, which I am inclined to agree with, "The language is oddly stilted though beautiful, and the dreamy misty quality of events and circumstances will either appeal to you or drive you nuts." I oscillated between these two extremes; I thought that the "misty quality" of everything in the book overall contributed to the narrative structure and themes in the book, but it made it difficult to motivate to keep reading. However, I am glad I kept reading. The ending of the story made up for the often befuddling descriptions. Neil Gaiman's review in the NYT sums it up better than I can:
The Buried Giant is a melancholy book, and the mist that breathes through it is a melancholic mist. The narrative tone is dreamlike and measured. There are adventures, sword fights, betrayals, armies, cunning stratagems and monsters killed, but these things are told distantly, without the book’s pulse ever beating faster. They are described unflinchingly, precisely, sometimes poetically.
I'm glad I read The Buried Giant. I don't know if I'm clamoring to recommend it to you because I had trouble finishing it and I'm a reader who typically devours books. What I can say is that it was an interesting meditation on memory, a solid fantasy read, and practically lyrically written. I will definitely re-read it sometime in the future after digesting the ending further. Rating: ★★★


One Plus One

The first book I read in 2016 (happy new year!! Here's the books I read in 2015) on the recommendation of my grandmother and aunt was the wonderfully delightful One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. The road trip tale of a single mother and her two kids who need to get to Scotland for a math competition and end up being driven by a tech millionaire who is running away from his own problems is a wacky premise (think Little Miss Sunshine), but it is a book that sucks you in and doesn't let you go. Moyes explains that she wanted to "write a road trip for the ages" and when she "started thinking about the differences between today's haves and Have Nots, it suddenly seemed like the perfect thing to put some very different people together." It's the perfect beach read -- or book to bring on an airplane -- because the story is emotionally engrossing without being too complex (the catchphrase is: "One single mom. One chaotic family. One quirky stranger. One irresistible love story from the New York Times bestselling author of Me Before You and After You.") You have a feeling that everything may work out just fine, but you don't quite know. And that small bit of doubt pushes you to keep reading. Moyes masterfully balances funny and sad at the same time creating a heartwarming mix. Ultimately a delight to read. As The Boston Globe writes (and I love the description so much I just have to include it):
Moyes has an unerring sense for the serious as well as for the ridiculous, and “One Plus One” shimmers with both unyielding warmth and canny incisiveness. While it tackles the desperation exposed by the chasm of income inequality and the horrific aspects of bullying, it also catches the more enchanting elements of life’s rich pageant from “the magnificence of total strangers,” to that moment when someone first notices the relaxing effect they’re having on another person and experiences the joyful epiphany of realizing that they are exactly where they belong.
Rating: ★★★★

2015 Books

Happy happy New Year, here are the books I read in 2015...
(hyperlinked to blog posts where I've written about the book & marked with (D) when it was a book I read for class at Dartmouth)