The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan

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I admit, I have a weakness for WWII stories.  I also have a weakness for stories about scrappy English villages coming together in the face of adversity, a la something you’d see on Masterpiece on PBS, as well as stories about music and choirs.  So despite my friend wrinkling her nose when I told her about Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, I was quite excited to start it, especially after my disappointing go with my previous book.

“As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.” (Once again, Amazon’s description is quite perfect.  I’ll stop relying on them, I promise, but I couldn’t describe it better this time.)

Sounds lovely, right?  And it is lovely.  And totally expected.  Not that there is anything wrong with that.  Ryan has clearly done a ton of research and writes beautifully and lovingly.  I deeply appreciate the accuracy of her language around the music and the choir.  Voice parts are accurately described, the musical language is mostly correctly, and the rehearsal process seems on point.  (It is worth noting that not all authors writing about music pay attention to these things.)  The characters are, for the most part, fully-realized and individual (and some a bit tiresome, though authentically so), and each one has their part to play in the narrative.  I did feel that the “conniving midwife” of the blurb above felt the most out of place.  She was certainly the most unlikable, but what I really struggled with was that her part of the story was there to create drama and tension, but that drama and tension felt artificial and not necessary or in keeping with the rest of the story.

That mis-characterization aside, what really shines in this story are the relationships among the women in the choir and the way music becomes a balm and therapy for them as they deal with the very close and very real horrors of war.  I think Ryan must have been a part of a women’s choir, or at least a mixed choir.  She writes about the importance of the choir to these women and their community as if she herself has experienced both the intense joy of creating a beautiful choral experience with others and the friendships that come from that.  And I like that because I have, too.  I have been in choirs my whole life, and some of my most important experiences and friends come from those choirs.

Like I said, this is a very lovely, expected, comforting book, but call me sentimental: I liked it.  I don’t think it’s for everyone.  I think some will be bored by it.  I don’t think it’s a major entry in to that ever-growing subgenre of WWII fiction.  But I think those of you who know and appreciate music and making music with others will be happy to spend some time with the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

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Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie

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I have been trying to make use of the library more, and sometimes that means waiting and waiting and waiting for a book.  Such was the case with Kamila Shamsie’s novel, Broken Verses.  It popped up on the library’s monthly recommended books list, and I wasn’t fast enough with my hold request, leading to a multi-month wait.  But finally it came in, all mine—at least for 3 weeks.

Broken Verses tells the story of Aasmaani, a 30-something Pakistani woman whose mother, Samina Akram, was a famous activist during the revolution, electrifying the country with her passion, mystique, and relationship with the beloved Poet.  2 years after the Poet was killed by government operatives, Aasmaani’s mother disappeared, too, leaving Aasmaani to deal with both a sense of abandonment and the burden of being Samina’s daughter.  Now an adult and drifting through the world, she begins work at Pakistan’s first independent television station right as a beloved actress is making her soap opera return.  The actress, Aasmaani’s mother’s former best friend, shares an anonymous note she received, written in the secret code used by Samina and the Poet and known only by them and Aasmaani, setting off a string of events that could lead to the truth about Samina’s disappearance and closure for Aasmaani.

Ok, I’ll be honest.  This should have been right up my alley.  Strong female protagonist—check.  Blend of historic and modern day—check.  Fiction strongly rooted in real history—check.  A mystery—check.  An epic love story—check.  Set in a part of the world that I’m always interested in learning more about—check.

So what’s the problem?

I just didn’t care about the characters.  It’s not even that I disliked it.  I just didn’t care.  I don’t know if it was how they were written or the mood I was in or what.  (I’ll admit, I was in a bit of a reading funk this summer.)  But I never could work up any sort of meaningful response to Aasmaani and her story.  She felt contrived.  Even the office romance being set up felt forced and clichéd.  So I stopped reading.  I don’t know how the story ends.  I don’t know if she finds her mother and forgives her or discovers what really happened or finds out the letters are a hoax or what.  I don’t know, and I’m not bothered by that.  Life is too short to waste on books you don’t respond to.  But what that also means is that I don’t know if I can recommend it or not.  Some of you may love this book.  Some of you may hate it.  Some of you may feel just fine about it or feel nothing at all for it.  You’ll just have to give it a shot to find out, but I won’t blame you if you don’t finish it.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

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What I appreciate about Mark Kurlansky is that his titles tell you exactly what the book is about.  Cod. Salt. Paper. The Big Oyster.  There is no beating around the bush here.  What I also appreciate about Mark Kurlansky (and yes, I will keep using his full name) is that he often takes completely mundane topics, topics that you think, “Why would I want to read a whole book about that?”, and reveals things about those topics that are more exciting and unexpected than you would ever think.

Case in point: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

Things I learned about cod from Mark Kurlansky’s biography about cod:

  1. English explorer John Cabot was actually Italian and named Giovanni Caboto.
  2. There are lots of different preparations for cod dating back to Viking times. A lot of them sound terrible.  But if you want to try them, Mark Kurlansky has provided recipes.
  3. Salt cod and dried cod are not the same thing. And you had to know which type of cod to sell in which European market.  Otherwise, they would not buy your cod.
  4. More seriously, cod was a vital part of the Atlantic trade system and a vital food source for slaves in the Caribbean and American colonies. It was so vital that when the cod trade to the US was temporarily halted, thousands of slaves died from starvation.
  5. Overfishing has been a major concern for a long time. However, during both World War’s, fishing in the Grand Banks and the North Sea were halted due to most fishing vessels being conscripted for naval service.  This led the cod population to rebound sufficiently enough each time to mask real effects of the commercial fishing tactics, and so now we are dealing with such a low cod population that it may not recover.
  6. And finally, there were not 1, not 2, but 3 Cod Wars between Iceland and the UK in the 20th century.  And despite how acrimonious and even violent they actually were, I am still slightly tickled by the idea of trawlers and tug boats fighting guerrilla naval battles in the North Sea.

Wow.  Cod.  I had no idea you were so important.

When I read Cod, despite all of the amazing things I was learning (and there are a ton more than what I listed above), I felt it was a little slow, and I was a little restless reading it.  I honestly don’t think I was really in the mood for a non-fiction book at the time, and I think I would have enjoyed the reading experience more had I been.  However, the more I think about it and the longer I sit with it, the more I realized I liked the book.  Kurlansky’s research is meticulous and exhaustive.  He also is purposeful and thoughtful in putting a human face on the topic, interviewing fishermen dealing with the economic, social, and life strains of working in a dying industry.  The recipes that end every chapter seems just quirky at first but also serve to underline the huge importance of cod in diets at all socio-economic levels and through a lot of human history.  This is not your average “biography”—it is an exploration of the effect of one creature on so many disparate parts of human experience.

So just as this book was recommended to me, I recommend it to you.  It’s a different and refreshing take on what could be a straightforward history of an industry, and I appreciate Kurlansky’s unique voice and creative approach.  And please don’t be turned off by the topic.  Cod really is the fish that changed the world.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel (Winternight Trilogy) by [Arden, Katherine]Apologies for the long hiatus from reviewing.  I’ve definitely been reading, but it’s a lot easier to read on the train than to try to find time for all the reviews.  But never fear!  I hope I’ll have several posted in the next few weeks.

I am a sucker for anything related to fairy tales, folk tales, mythology, and the blurring between the real, spiritual, and magical worlds, even more so when the novel in question is being touted as a spectacular debut.  I started Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale with expectations high, and I was thrilled to find it lived up to those expectations.

From Amazon: “At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasya doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales…Wise Russians…honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil. Vasya’s new stepmother, fiercely devout and city-bred, forbids her family from honoring the household spirits…Crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasya’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. As danger circles, Vasya must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.”

One of the reasons I have put off writing this review is that this book is hard to describe without going overboard.  I usually prefer to write my own descriptions, but with this one I couldn’t leave anything out.  So I finally decided Amazon’s blurb was good enough, but don’t let it fool you into thinking this is a tale as simple as good and evil.  That is the beauty of this book: nothing is quite as simple and straightforward as it seems.

Take the battle of the spirit world: the novel is set in 14th century Russia when the Russian Orthodox Church was quickly gaining power yet Russians in rural areas still practiced the old ways of leaving offerings for the house spirits and wearing charms to protect them from the evils of the forest.  And at first it seems as if the book might be arguing that traditional beliefs are better than the more “modern” Christian ones.  The arrival of the Church in the forms of Vasya’s step-mother and the new young zealot of a priest conflict with these old traditions, and their messages of intolerance cause the villages to disavow their old beliefs.  This, in turn, weakens the house spirits and their protections.  However, Arden introduces a small historical character, an actual patriarch in the Russian Orthodox Church, who reveals a message of balance and love.  So we see it is not simply old vs. new that creates the problem.  It is because in their fervor, the step-mother and village priest experience and spread fear and intolerance, which allows the evil of the spirit world to creep in and begin to push out both the good protections of the home spirits and the message of God’s love.

This book is a celebration of otherness and a reminder that when we condemn that or who we don’t understand, we are opening ourselves up to not just hate but loss of what could have been.  We are the ones who lose when we shun or reject others.  We are the ones who suffer, who lose ourselves, when we give into our fear.  And if you think that’s too deep for a fairy tale, I suggest you go back to the “original” tales collected over the years.  Fairy tales are meant to teach us things: how to be good, how to solve problems, how to survive when we have to go into the woods.  And so this novel does.  It is beautifully and lovingly written, full of incredible historical details and richly created characters.  The time and place feel both of the past and of now, allowing Arden’s message to ring just as true today as it might have in Vasya’s 14th century Russian village.  I highly recommend this book, both as an escape and as a temporary balm for our times.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron (and Dead Lions–Slough House #2)

After the last disastrous attempt to find a new mystery, I was still on the hunt late this spring and was intrigued when I found Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first in his new-ish Slough House series.  It traces the lives and exploits of the “Slow Horses”, MI-5’s rejects who for some reason can’t be fired but can be exiled to Slough House, where they push paper and scan computer screens all day.  The motley crew, led by the vile and disgusting yet surprisingly human Jackson Lamb, stumbles upon a supposed terrorist plot after an unexpected victim is kidnapped.  River Cartwright, the grandson of intelligence royalty and relegated to intelligence obscurity for accidentally crashing King’s Cross Station, leads the mission as the team races against time and the higher ups at Regent’s Park determined to put Slough House back in it place to save the victim, unmask the true masterminds, and prevent an international incident.

This was an interesting book.  I think the genre of “spy thriller” can be hard to pull off in novel form, unless you are John Le Carre, even more so when your spies are basically pencil pushers and desk jockeys.  On top of that, this spy thriller is trying to say something and something important.  It uses the frame-work of its terrorism and kidnapping plot to explore the radicalization of individuals and communities via the internet.  The novel argues that it’s not the radical voices that are necessarily dangerous but those listeners and readers who take the radical rhetoric to its logical–or, it could be argued, illogical– dangerous, and scary end.  Essentially the internet allows people to find community in a much broader, even global way than previously, particularly those who have been or feel victimized.  In some ways, this is positive–it allows actual victims and allies to find each other, provide support, and effect change, such as was seen with this year’s Women’s March.  In other cases, the internet also allows people to gather and turn something that’s not really a problem into a problem and themselves into victims, with fear, belief, and entitlement overtaking fact and critical analysis.  An example is the radicalization of young, straight, white men, seen recently in Gamergate or, in the case of this novel and world politics, as the drivers of the populist and anti-immigration movements in Europe and the US.  Whether or not you agree with the premise of Herron’s argument, research and, indeed, experience is increasingly showing us the effect of the dark side of the internet has on socio-cultural beliefs and human interaction.  (If you are interested in some of the psychology behind what makes humans lie and be susceptible to lying, fake news, and our current political and cultural climates, check out National Geographic’s excellent article, “Why We Lie” from their June 2017 issue.)

This is really important stuff to be talking about, and I applaud Herron for using a piece of popular writing to alert his readers to major societal concerns.  For genre-fiction as social polemic to work, however, the actual novel has to be really strong, and unfortunately, in this case, it’s not quite.  The novel begins in medias res and reveals character’s backstories slowly, as if Herron wants to spin out the suspense as longs as possible by just dropping crumbs here and there.  Oddly, though, this makes it extremely exposition heavy yet not a lot of the exposition is particularly interesting or helpful.

Additionally, the exposition doesn’t allow for much real character development, so it was hard to care for these spunky misfits who are the only thing that stand between us unsuspecting civilians and the next world war.  For example (and here be spoilers), two characters flip sides, and I hardly remembered who they were by the time I finished the novel, let alone now as I’m writing this review.  Another one was killed, and my response was not one of emotional connection but more of, “Oh, I guess that character is dead now.  I wonder why they were in the book at all.”  Even the main character was not well developed to the point that I did not realize who Herron was talking about when describing him at the end of the novel.  The most memorable character is the leader of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, but only because he is absolutely disgusting as a human being.

The pacing was a bit of a challenge as well.  The first 150 pages were super slow, but not bad enough to stop.  Rather it was just good enough to keep going to see if the pace would improve.  After that it picked up to near breakneck speed, and I didn’t want to put it down just because there was no point in stopping by then.  I must say, the last several chapters, alternating perspective between the Slough House team and the kidnapped victim, were incredibly thrilling and sickeningly horrifying and would make for an excellent film sequence.  And (here be more spoilers) the ending was really great–for the victim, at least.

This was just a really interesting reading experience.  I found the book to be extremely prescient, basically predicting (or at least recognizing early?) Brexit and extreme right-wing white/nationalistic anger.  But as a platform for a message, it undermined what it was trying to do by not meeting the high standards it set for itself in terms of novel structure.  But I liked how pulpy it was and its devil may care vibe.  It was fun at times.  I’m honestly not sure if I liked it, but I kind of want to read the next one.  So I guess I liked it enough, and you may, too.

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

So I read the second one, Dead Lions.  And I continue to not really know how I feel about this series.

In Dead Lions, we’re thrown back to the Cold War when one of Britain’s low level Cold War agents dies, and Jackson Lamb, head of Slough House, suspects foul play.  An impending visit from a Russian oligarch and whispers of a long-debunked fake Russian spy reappeared put Lamb on high alert and send the Slow Horses into action…sort of.

So Dead Horses fixes some of my character concerns from the first installment.  Herron doesn’t try to make a major social point with this one.  He’s just focused on spinning a good tale.  We also spend more time with characters other than River Cartwright and Jackson Lamb, getting to better know Louisa Guy & Min Harper, Roderick Ho, and my favorite, Catherine Standish.  Yes, that’s right.  The character development is enough this time that I now have a favorite, and I immensely appreciate that the most bad-ass Slow Horse is an unassuming yet imminently capable middle-aged woman.  She is absolutely the smartest person in the room, and you would never know it until she has you trapped.  Awesome.

However, a few problems still remain.  The pacing demonstrates different challenges this time: it moves more quickly than Slow Horses but takes much longer to charge into gear, so long, in fact, that the ending feels a bit sudden and perfunctory.  And even with the improved development, I still cared very little for most of the characters.  The stakes felt lower in this one than the first, and at the end, I didn’t really feel the need to continue the series.

The problem is that it’s not a terrible series, though.  Not great but not terrible.  And Herron does know how to write a thrilling near-end action sequence.  So even though I’m not really feeling it, there is a part of me that’s like, “Hey…you’re two books into the series…it’s fluff, so why not just continue when you’re looking for something light?”  We’ll see how powerful that voice turns out to be, but for the time being, the effort it will take to get the next book is outweighing the desire to keep reading.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

One of the reasons that I read is that there is so much about this world and the people in it that I don’t know, and books, even novels, offer a window on the world, to crib my local PBS station’s motto.  In fact, I particularly love a thoroughly researched and well-crafted historical fiction novel because it allows me to learn about a time I may or may not have much knowledge of within the context of a personal experience I most likely have not experienced.  It highlights why storytelling has been such a huge part of human culture since ancient times; we tend to learn and apply more when we feel a personal connection to the story or lesson or event.  So to that end, I continued my effort to be a more diverse reader and read more diverse literature and learn more about our world and my fellow humans this year with Min Jin Lee’s gorgeous Pachinko.

Pachinko tells the story of teenaged Sunja, who falls in love with a mysterious, wealthy gentleman in her small Korean village in the early 1900’s.  When she finds out not only is she pregnant but her lover is married, she risks societal dishonor and refuses to be his kept mistress.  She ultimately accepts an offer of marriage from one of her mother’s borders, a kind, gentle, sickly minister on his way to Japan to minister to the Christian Koreans making their way to a new land of opportunity.  Her decision sets off a four-generational saga of a family experiencing love, joys, and loss and struggling to find their way in a new country where they don’t fit and exiled from a country most of them don’t know or remember.  The choices Sunja, her sons, and her grandchildren make takes the story careening from the Korean ghetto and street markets in Osaka to the most elite Japanese universities and the mafia-fronted pachinko parlors (the parlor game of pachinko representing the randomness and lack of randomness of life) and explores the role of the family, culture, and society in forming individual identity.

First, let me say this book is near 500 pages but you should absolutely not be daunted.  It is absolutely gorgeous, as I said before, but not sprawling.  Instead, the narrative is very contained and controlled, much like Lee’s characters strive to be.  As a result, the book is quiet yet intensely emotional.  These moments of emotion, whether joy or sadness, fear or courage, were unveiled so purposefully, intentionally, and beautifully, like a rose unfolding, that as a reader, I felt the emotions as intently as the characters–or at least as close as I could without actually being them.  There was a particular moment when a fissure of tension finally cracked and pushed the family apart, that I was left breathless with the very real pain of it.  It has been a long time since I have read an author who writes the everyday, human emotions we experience with such depth, grace, and truth.

Structurally, this is the second multi-perspective book I’ve read recently, and this one fared much more successfully.  The characters weave in and out of the narrative and the timeline much more naturally, and Lee uses the character’s perspective to help signal major time period shifts.  Her mastery at this really emphasized the flowing nature of time and how much life can pass before we realize it.  A few of the characters, however, only had 1 section in a near 500 page book, so unfortunately those sections felt more forced and out of place in the larger narrative.  They weren’t necessarily unnecessary, but the information (or major plot points, as was sometimes the case) could have probably been conveyed differently by an existing character and to greater effect.

Finally, as mentioned above, I learned a lot about a piece of world history that I frankly knew nothing about.  I knew a little about the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korean from Simon Winchester’s Pacific, but I knew nothing of Korea before that point: the large immigration of Koreans to the more economically stable Japan in the hopes of finding opportunity and growth for their families, the discrimination faced by both immigrant and Japanese-born Koreans once in Japan, and the inability of many Koreans to go back home due to the challenges, violence, and economic instability of both North and South Korea post-WWII.  Lee masterfully educates her reader on this time period by using her main family to explore the cultural history of displaced Koreans and the impact of socio-political policies in Japan, all within the dichotomies experienced by her main family: the tugs of war between past and future; the older and younger generations; Korean-ness and Japanese-ness; Asia and “the West”; rich and poor (and new and old wealth and even acceptable and unacceptable wealth); real family and “real” family; obligations to one’s self and to one’s family and culture.  I could go on, and it’s a lot, but Lee does it without rancor or blame or anger toward any of her characters or the cultures and country.  Instead she presents this history and these tensions with an openness that allows the reader to connect with many facets of this history and the characters’ representative experiences, ultimately coming to one’s own conclusion about the story presented.

Honestly, it was an honor to read Pachinko, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I feel like the NPR review describes it nicely.  “In fiction we seek a paradox, the familiar in the foreign, new realities that only this one particular author can give us. Pachinko is the kind of book that can open your eyes and fill them with tears at the same time.”

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has been on the lips of everyone I know, it seems.  It was recommended to me at least 3 time, the last recommendation a very a passionate one, before I decided to pick it up.  And once I started, even more people who had read it started to emerge from the woodwork.  They all loved it.  They were sure I would love it.  They were mostly right.

In 2044, the real world has devolved into an over-populated, poverty-stricken, corporate-run wasteland where most of humanity spends their time in a virtual reality world known as the OASIS, designed by a tech genius, James Halliday, who is a composite of every major tech genius of the modern digital age (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, you name it) and his best friend, Steve Wozniak.  (Or rather, Cline’s imagined virtual reality version of Steve Wozniak, Ogden Morrow.)  Wade Watts, our Player One, and most of humanity have spent years trying to find an Easter Egg built into the OASIS by Halliday right before his death.  The player who finds the Easter Egg will win Halliday’s fortune.  Unfortunately, no one has figured out the first clue…until Wade and a few of his friends.  Suddenly he is the main target of all Egg hunters, and it’s a race against time to save the world from the evil corporation willing to kill to find Halliday’s fortune.

Honestly, this is the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long time.  Ernest Cline is a master world-builder, and the world he creates in his novel is as thorough and immersive as it must be for the characters in the OASIS.  The level of detail and exposition did make it a bit slow through page 59, but on page 60, the plot took off and never looked back.  It does help if you either lived in the 80’s or are a fan of 80’s pop culture because it is everywhere.  Most is explained but some is pretty referential.   PAC Man, Matthew Broderick’s entire teenage output (especially Ladyhawke, one of my favorites of his), you name it.  For me, I know just enough about the 80’s that I was pretty pleased when I got most of the references but didn’t worry or feel confused when I didn’t.  The whole book is incredibly detailed.  Cline’s love of and care for the decade is palpable, and it really makes you want to spend the next month revisiting all of your 80’s favorites.

It is also extremely well-written.  Cline is fantastic as establishing and maintaining character through distinct voices.  This is vital, especially as we meet and get to know so many of the characters through their virtual avatars through most of the story.  There was the occasional contrived or cliche emotional situation, but for the most part, one of the most impressive things was how real the characters and relationships felt in such an artificial world.  That being said, the plot is not sacrificed–it’s very lean, nothing is gratuitous or not taken into account, and the pacing is near perfect.

My only quibble is that the ending just ends.  Loose threads are hanging all over, the bad guy just disappears, there’s no real sense of closure…but when you think about it, that’s exactly how a video game ends.  And that’s what this is–an account of playing and winning a giant, classic good-vs-evil, real-world video game.

Ready Player One is an Arthurian quest set in a virtual future and infused with 1980’s pop culture, and it is a rollicking good ride.  Like I said, it was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long time, and I highly recommend it, even if it’s not what you’d normally read.  You won’t regret it.

Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

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Earlier this spring, I was feeling a mystery.  I like to read mysteries when I’m feeling unsettled, un-moored, or chaotic.  That may seem counter-intuitive, given that mysteries often are built on chaos, violence, and even murder.  However, there is a structure to mysteries: there is always a clear solution, and order is brought from the chaos.  Unfortunately, none of my favorite mystery series had a new book out, my Agatha Christie novels weren’t calling to me, and I was feeling in a bit of a mystery rut.  Suddenly in all of my book-related e-mails, Lili Wright’s thriller, Dancing with the Tiger, began to repeatedly appear, as if the book-iverse was responding to my need for a new mystery.

Wright’s novel traces Anna’s travels to Mexico to track down the recently unearthed death mask of Montezuma in order to restore the reputation of her father, a formerly world-renowned and now disgraced art expert and alcoholic, and to get back at her posh (and cheating) museum curator ex-fiance.  She quickly realizes she is not the only one looking for the mask–a powerful drug lord, a suave and sinister American ex-pat collector, a Mexican museum curator, her sexy new boyfriend, and the meth-addled looter himself are all after this priceless and historic discovery.  What follows is a mishmash of sex, hyper-violence, drugs, adventure, bribery, art, and a battle for honor, family, and identity.

Sounds cool, right?

Wrong.

This book was…meh.  Disappointing.  Blah.  An Edgar nominee who did not live up to its designation as “suspenseful” and that the Kirkus review called, “well-written but seriously undisciplined,” which I feel is highly accurate.  (It is also one of the most delightfully snarky reviews I’ve ever read and is much more concise than this one will be.)  Honestly, there is no mystery, no suspense.  Everything is shown–you know exactly who has the mask at every point throughout the novel, and even the murders contain no surprise.  Nothing surprises.  Maybe it should be classified more as an adventure thriller, but it’s not really thrilling nor adventurous, so maybe I’m just suffering from dashed hopes amidst false advertising.

I also often experience a viscerally negative reaction against the trope of “edgy, hard-drinking girl who needs to get her shit together so she goes on a quest and finds she only needs love from a good man as opposed to a bad man.”  That is absolutely what I experienced here.  Anna is not at all likable.  She makes perpetually bad decisions, despite knowing she shouldn’t make those decisions.  She makes snap judgments, says stupid stuff that actually gets her abducted, and falls into the cliche of assuming her new boyfriend’s beautiful sister is his other girlfriend and refusing to talk to him about why she’s mad.  Not that a character has to be likable.  I have loved completely unlikable characters before.  The problem here is that she is so tropey and inauthentic that she’s just irritating.  I don’t want to spend a whole book with her.  I want her to stop being an idiot and go home.  Every choice she makes is somehow born out of needing to prove to a man (her ex-fiance, her father, her boyfriend) that she has value, but there is nothing to latch onto behind that lack of self-worth.  And so her behavior, her choices, her whole self just feel superficial and edgy for edgy’s sake.  (Kirkus agrees with me.)

The other characters all feel very superficial as well.  Wright alternates the perspective of each chapter from character to character, but there are so many that it’s almost impossible to get to know any character, let alone Anna, in any real way.   Everyone feels very shallow, very archetypal as if they are filling a pre-determined role.  In fact, Wright gives only some of the characters names, instead defining the characters and their chapters by their role or job: The Looter, The Gardner, The Housekeeper.  Some of them just disappear with no explanation.  Others come out of nowhere.  The looter gains a girlfriend about 2/3 of the way through who really has very little impact on him or the story, and their coupling feels more like Wright decided she needed to fit that in rather than an authentic relationship.  Maybe Wright was trying to do too much with the plot and various motivations, but for everything that happens and every character we meet, this novel feels so surface-level and stereotypical.  Even the Spanish interspersed throughout the text feels more Spanish language primer than natural language use.

The novel moves very quickly, but I honestly didn’t want to read it.  It was well-written–Wright knows her structure–but it often read more like a writing exercise than a well-crafted novel.  It felt like a chore to read, and I was glad when I was done.  So why finish it?  I don’t really know.  I guess I read it so you don’t have to.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

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When my friend, Matthew, tells me to read something, I usually read it.  When Matthew physically hands me the book and tells me it’s the best, most important book he’s read all year, I definitely read it.  Such was the case with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.  On the surface, it’s not the kind of book I gravitate toward: a contemporary memoir by a young man detailing his and his family’s experiences growing up poor and white in middle America.  But in my effort to diversify my reading this year, it’s a perfect example of the kind of book I wouldn’t normally think to pick up but absolutely should.

J.D. Vance is a lawyer, former marine, and Ohio State and Yale Law School grad building a life with his wife in the Bay Area and only a few years older than me.  In terms of privilege, he checks all the boxes: straight, white, Protestant, male.   J.D. is also a child of the Rust Belt, grandson of hill people, son of a single, troubled mother, and near high-school drop out.  He is the symbol of his grandparents successes in social and economic upward mobility, but as he shares, those successes were fraught, hard-fought, and sometimes nearly lost with alarming ease.

His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, grew up in the hollers of Kentucky, got married young, and moved to steel-town Middletown, Ohio right after World War II to escape the abject poverty of Appalachia and build a better life for their family.  And that they did.  They bought a house and a car, had 3 children, and worked up to become solidly middle-class.  However, they also brought with them the attitudes, traditions, values, and culture of their poor, white, Appalachian upbringing, which created extreme challenges and even failures in maintaining both those values and their middle-class life.  Honor and family pride are paramount, and they would defend them to the point of violence, even death.  The hard work valued by his grandparents’ generation combined with the entitlement and privilege of whiteness led to a next generation that struggled with drugs and alcohol, job instability, unhealthy relationships, violence, and accountability.  And for many, the cycle continued spiraling down in subsequent generations, leading to increasing alienation and fewer ways out.  These are generalities, of course, but generalities identified and experienced by J.D. himself.  On the flip side, the fierceness of the hillbilly mindset also led to J.D.’s grandparents providing him as stable a home as possible while dealing with their own challenges and his grandmother essentially browbeating him into finishing school and becoming the Yale-educated, Bay Area-living lawyer he is today.  As experienced by J.D., it is a culture in crisis desperate to right itself.

J.D.’s memoir is his attempt to make sense of that clash and that crisis, while providing a sensitive, honest, and discerning “sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion” (Senior, NY Times).  J.D. peppers his anecdotes with statistics, research, and expert analysis on the crisis of the white working poor and the effect that it has had on American society, particularly politics, as a whole.  This book was not written to explain how Trump happened, but I certainly have a much clearer understanding for why and how Trump happened and, I hope, more compassion for those very real people who found in him an answer to their plight.

As I was writing this review, I found this blog post by Joshua Wilkey on his blog, This Appalachian Life.  Wilkey, like J.D., grew up the child of a poor, white, single mother in Appalachia who never quite achieved the success and stability she worked so hard to get. He takes umbrage with J.D.’s assertion with the fact that in order for the plight of the rural white poor to improve, they must not rely on the government but instead examine themselves and work toward a shift in culture.  He likens J.D.’s analysis to almost-victim blaming and questions J.D.’s methodology and factual support.  I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions regarding JD’s process or his accusation of victim-blaming.  J.D. and Wilkey are, in essence, making the same point regarding the need for accountability, just locating that need differently, and I suspect the most effective actual location is multi-located including individuals, cultural centers, and the government.  I think of Wilkey’s blog as evidence of the differences and nuances within seemingly similar cultural experiences that provides a good counterbalance to J.D.’s admittedly specific account of his own family’s experiences.

Due to it’s popularity, there is a danger of people holding up Hillbilly Elegy as “THIS!  This is THE book!  The key to understanding the rural white working poor!”  And that’s not the case.  It can help and certainly has helped many people, including me, attempt to better understand a home grown culture that feels incredibly foreign in this day and age.  The benefit of Hillbilly Elegy and the various responses to it is not that it explains anything, but that it forces a conversation about what the real experience of the working poor in America is (and that it is clearly not universal), and that conversation is shining a more realistic light on the successes and failures of our social policies and institutions.  There is no key, however, no easy answer that so many people seem to feel this book can (or should) be.  That is not to say you shouldn’t read Hillbilly Elegy.  You absolutely should.  However, it is incumbent upon us to read works like Hillbilly Elegy and take them as a starting point for further learning, conversation, understanding, and growth.  We live in scary times, but in nurturing rather than destroying relationships and approaching our fellow human beings with openness and humility, we can find a way forward.

 

 

 

For a perspective on race in these conversations, please see The Atlantic’s October 2017 issue for The First White President by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I firmly believe is one of the most important, if not the most important, writers of race of the 21st century.

Senior, Jennifer. “Review: In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html?_r. Accessed 12 May 2017.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

IImage result for the moor's account‘ve set a goal for myself this year to read intentionally diverse literature: male and female authors, books set in or about different cultures, books by authors from different cultures, books about different American subcultures, books in translation.   I feel like I generally do a pretty good job in some of these areas, partially due to authors, genres, and parts of history that I tend to gravitate towards, but I could do better.  And what is reading for if not learning more about both the world and yourself at the same time?

To start the year, I’d run across Laila Lalami’s stunning The Moor’s Account several times in my book list perusals and finally asked for it for Christmas this past year.  A finalist for the Pulitzer, nominee for the Man Booker, and winner of the American Book Award, I should have asked sooner.  Not that awards are everything, but in this case, they are well-deserved.  And now, after finishing it in February, I am finally getting around to reviewing it.

Lalami’s tale tells the fictionalized story of the real Mustafa al-Zamori, a North African merchant who sells himself into slavery to support his debts and becomes the first black explorer of the Americas as part of the doomed Narvaez expedition to La Florida.  Known to his master, Dorontes, as Estebanico, Mustafa tells his story in alternating chapters–his past and his present–until the two converge as he and 3 other men, including the legendary Cabeza de Vaca, struggle to find a way back to Spain as the sole survivors of the Narvaez expedition.

This was a really interesting book for me.  I found it to be incredibly dense in terms of what was packed on the page.  The plot moved incredibly quickly, but I would be shocked at the end of the train ride to find I’d only read 15 pages.  It’s not a long book–only about 320 pages–but each page is chock-full of important details, events, interactions, and characters.  Nothing is excess; everything is necessary.  In support of that, Lalami structures each chapter as a story told by Mustafa, most with titles like “The Story of Fill-in-the-Blank.”  Mustafa alternates between telling stories of his past as the child of middle-class North Africans with ambitions to be a merchant, gaining wealth and power, to his present as slave of the Spanish explorer Dorontes.  These chapters alternated until past and present converge about 2/3 of the way through, and we begin to experience Mustafa’s life along with him.  Because each chapter is itself a self-contained story that combines with the other chapters to create an overarching narrative, it really emphasizes this economic density of Lalami’s language.

Do not mistake this for a short story collection, though.  It is most definitely a novel, one that ruminates on the importance of owning one’s story, the differences and overlaps between one’s story and one’s identity, and the sometimes itchy relationship between one’s story, one’s truth, and one’s experience…and even “the” truth.  As the title of the novel suggests, Mustafa is intent on controlling the telling of his personal story, and so we the readers get to experience his hopes and dreams, his successes and failures, his loves and losses.  We get to know him as a fully-formed human being, which is not as common as it might seem in literature.  Yet in all of this, Mustafa jealously guards his story from those around him.  It is his story that grounds his identity as Mustafa rather than “Estebanico” as the Spaniards call him.  It is his story that contains his personhood, even when what is visible to those around him is his slave status.  It is his story that helps him maintain his humanity, his faith, and his hope when all those around him are losing theirs.  For if we cannot control how we tell our stories, what can we control?

I do have to say that I had some trouble understanding geography and distances while the characters were in La Florida.  For a long time in reading the novel, I thought they were spending years wandering the length of Florida and that the fabled “Isle of Doom” was somewhere off the east coast of the now-state.  Turns out, the “Isle of Doom” is Galveston Island, not an hour and a half from where I grew up.  (And those less charitable among us would argue that Galveston still is the “Isle of Doom”.  I enjoy Galveston myself.)  Silly me.

But that’s a small quibble and does not diminish the splendor of Lalami’s tale or the enjoyment of her writing.  I found this book to be incredibly beautiful, heartbreaking, horrifying, honest, and hopeful.  In short, it is a masterful account of a universal need within a unique and uniquely human and experience.  I urge you to read The Moor’s Account.  I don’t know how you will enjoy it, but it will certainly be a thoroughly worthwhile experience.