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)