The Book of Dust, Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman


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When I was growing up, I loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.  Set in a parallel universe Oxford where humans have animal familiars called daemons but magic and fantasy are still foreign, the series traces the adventures of Lyra, a young girl tasked with saving the world from the machinations of the evil Mrs. Coulter.  It was the ultimate girl power story and nudged me in the direction of becoming a full-fledged Anglophile.  I just loved it.  So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the first publicity adds for the first book in Pullman’s new prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage, in Oxford last summer.  I finally got to read it this past March, and it was well-worth the wait.

La Belle Sauvage tells the story of Malcolm, his daemon Asta, and his little boat, the titular La Belle Sauvage.  Malcolm’s parents run The Trout, an inn on the banks of the Themes in Oxford (and I’ve eaten at its restaurant!), and all of Oxford comes through the doors.  Malcolm notices and hears a lot but is noticed little himself, an advantage when he comes across a mysterious message about something called Dust.  His adventures start when the kind spy for whom the message was intended finds him and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open.  Suddenly all the world is looking for a little baby girl being hidden in the nunnery nearby.  With a storm coming, threatening to flood the whole county, and the baby’s life in increasing danger, Malcolm embarks on an Odyssean journey in his boat with the baby (who will grow up to be Lyra of the original series) and the nunnery’s maid, Alice, their goal to reunite her with her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, and survive the evil agents hunting them.

I loved this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it!  It was exactly what I needed after a disappointing previous book, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.  Pullman is a master of creating whole worlds out of simplicity and structure.  His language is gorgeous and evocative, and reading his stories is like jumping into the world of a painting.  In fact, the way I realized that the novel’s The Trout is a real place that I have been was that his descriptions were so specific and accurate that I kept thinking, “This place sounds so familiar…” until I finally looked up the pub where we’d had dinner in Oxford and realized it was the one and the same.  His masterful exploration of a truly vile character through descriptions of his hyena daemon were visceral and revolting, and the animal and man’s matching hoarse laughter stuck with me for days after finishing.  And I think his world-building skills are close to Tolkien and Lewis, honestly.

Additionally, Pullman is a smart writer.  Everything has a specific purpose; nothing, no description, no structural choice, is superfluous.  Though well-known for his distrust of organized religion, he is well-grounded in the literature and histories of religion and mythology, much of which he uses to underpin his narrative.  It’s a little like the Bible–a great flood comes and wipes out much of Oxford, setting the major events of the story in motion.  It’s a little like The Odyssey–Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra experience a series of islands in the massive river, each one increasingly mystical and dreamlike, and many directly referencing stops along Odysseus’s journey.  A stop at a faerie’s home mimics time on Circe’s island; a great house full of party-goers brings to mind the lotus-eaters; and the river god’s direct help reflects Athena’s support of Odysseus.  All in all, La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm’s hero’s journey, setting him up for even more in the next two books.

All I wanted to do was read this book, and I got to do so on the perfect weekend.  It was cold, rainy, and gross, and I spent the whole weekend wrapped up in both a blanket and the story while drinking tea.  I was only disappointed at how the spy disappeared from the narrative, and I hope she returns in the next book.  Technically this can be considered young adult, but it doesn’t read like a young adult novel.  It just reads like a wonderful story.  I can’t wait for the next one, and I may go back and binge read the original series just to tide me over.  I highly recommend La Belle Sauvage, and I honestly think it is just as good an entry point into the world of Lyra as the original series is.



Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen


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We live in an increasingly global world that gets smaller by the day.  And with that, power and positions  are shifting…I could say faster than ever before, but the reality is that they have always shifted.  America’s place in the world is shifting as well, and it will be increasingly important that we can look at and understand our history and our future in this world from a more global lens rather than such an America-centric lens as many do now.  To help expand our views, though, it’s important to understand how our attitudes, actions, and decisions are seen by the rest of the world historically and currently, and Suzy Hansen, in Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, strives to do just that.

Hansen is a journalist living in Istanbul who grew up in a small, conservative town on the Jersey Shore.  She pushed against her bubble and attended Penn, followed by a move to New York and then finally to Istanbul, where she has lived for the past 7 years.  Her experiences there has caused her image of America to shatter, and this book is part of her picking up the pieces to reconstruct them in a more accurate image of both herself, as a young, white, financially stable American woman, and the United States and their places in the world.  It is part memoir, part travel narrative, part literary analysis, and part socio-political ethnography, and her focus is on exploring how Americans have viewed the world from a purely American lens and the effects of that on history, politics, and international relations.

Hansen looks particularly at definitions of race and culture in opposition: for example, American whiteness defined specifically in opposition to non-whiteness (particularly blackness), American Christianity defined in opposition to non-Christianity, etc..  These concepts are not new (see Ta Nehisi Coates’ excellent article on the subject in relation to the presidency), but her framing of these oppositional definitions within the context of US-Turkish relations creates a fresh perspective for exploring them.  Turkey as a country is so aware of the US presence in its own history, and yet most Americans know very little about Turkey, let alone our role in its evolution as a country.  It is this attitude of “You (the world) are not me (America)” and the subsequent disregard and humiliation of others that Hansen argues is a major part of the rest of the world’s distaste for the US and its policies.

Hansen’s book, as I mentioned, is a jumble of literary and historical analysis intersperse with her own experiences relearning and re-framing her identity as an American within the broader world.  She assesses authors from Orhan Pamuk to James Baldwin and brings in plenty of primary and secondary sources to support her arguments.  And on the whole, I agree with a lot of her main points.  She is aligned with Rick Steve’s philosophy of travel–that we travel to learn about and from others so that when we home, we shine a light on what needs to be improved nationally, locally, and personally and then work to improve our home.  However, I felt a lot of her analysis was surprisingly and incredibly dense.  She talks for pages without really saying anything, and she hammers home a few main points and her rationale a bit relentlessly and, in some cases, unnecessarily.

I felt the book is much stronger in the memoir passages when she’s focusing on her own experiences and journey of reevaluation.  Her prose is both more economical and more evocative, and her points are much more purposeful and impactful.  Obviously, an effective argument is not built on personal experience alone; analysis is definitely important.  However, storytelling is one of the oldest creations of humanity.  It has been used for millennia to teach, share knowledge, and pass on news and information, not just entertain, and we are wired to respond to and remember story and experience.  As such, the parts of this book I remember the most are Hansen’s conversations and encounters throughout Turkey.  I wish there had been more, particularly around Hansen’s own experience growing up, as I think a little more context about her own background would underscore both the depth and importance of her own transformation even more.  Additionally, I felt like that the book itself was reading like she now has all of this figured out, and the warning against such an America-centric view of the world doesn’t apply to her specifically anymore.  Full-disclosure:  I did not finish the book, so some of these concerns could have been negated if I’d gotten further.  However, it strikes me that this kind of perspective shift requires constant attention and intention rather that being something that we complete, if that makes sense.

I think this is a book with a lot of important ideas and suggestions that we as a country would benefit from exploring and discussing.  I like the core of the content.  But honestly, I just got tired of slogging through it.  I had high hopes for it and was really excited about it, but I just did not find it to be coruscating the way many critics did.  However, enough people disagree with me that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I would encourage you to give it a shot.  This is one where I expect opinions will vary tremendously, generating a lot of vital conversation, and it’s more important to read than not.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues by Nova Jacobs


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I am always on the lookout for a good new mystery, and honestly I’ve been disappointed for a while now.  Most of my favorite series are still reliable, but I’ve not been super excited when I venture outside of them.  Maybe I’m a creature of habit and comfort.  Maybe not.  However, there is one new mystery that I’ve read so far this year that gives me hope for the genre.

Nova Jacob’s debut novel, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues, tells the story of legendary mathematician Severy’s death and the hunt for his last equation that has unbelievable and dangerous applications.  He has entrusted this task to his adopted granddaughter, Hazel, just as her Seattle bookshop is failing and her boyfriend breaks up with her.  With nothing to lose, Hazel heads to Los Angeles for the funeral and to race against time and other agents searching for the elusive equation.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Hazel; her brother Gregory, an LA cop; and Isaac’s son, Phillip, a successful mathematician in his own right.  Overall, this structure led to great character development, particularly for the lead characters, and super clear motivations–I knew exactly why everyone did what they did.  Overall, I liked Hazel’s sections the best.  I related to her the most, and she had a depth and a joy for life that shone through even in her most frustrated or overwhelmed moments.  Phillip and Gregory’s sections often felt like two different books because Isaac required all 3 to avoid communicating with others about their search at any cost.  Additionally, Phillip and Gregory were both increasingly isolated mentally throughout the book.  This led to Hazel’s sections anchoring both the mystery and the larger story.  All three perspectives were interesting and engaging, though not always feeling a part of the same story.

As a mystery, it was extremely well-paced and well-plotted.  I saw a few things coming, but it felt like you were supposed in those moments.  Additionally, I figured out the key right before it was revealed, and I really appreciated both the clues and smaller revelations that were cleverly interspersed throughout the story as well as the genuine unexpectedness of the solution.  I also appreciated how the book had a distinct LA noir feel without glossing over some of the real issues the characters were dealing with the way traditional noir sometimes does.  In fact, the story dealt with some really hard topics, such as child abuse, mental illness, suicide, adultery, and death with grace and empathy but without letting them take over the tone of the book.

As I mentioned, the main character development was strong, but several of the non-focus characters felt a little (or a lot) more ephemeral.  I couldn’t remember who Lily and Jane were for the longest time, and just after finishing the book, I cannot for the life of me tell you Jane’s sister’s name.  And if you have no idea who I’m talking about…I’m sorry, I can’t help.  Additionally, I wasn’t crazy about the ending.  I feel like a character received an automatic acceptance and forgiveness that I did not feel was deserved nor earned, and honestly, it bothered me a lot.


The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith


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Somehow, SOMEHOW I missed a review.  That’s never happened!  I may get behind (ok, way behind), but this time I’m not just behind, I’ve completely skipped a book.  Didn’t get it written down in my notes document or anything.  SO!  I’m pausing in my great catch-up project to rectify that because certainly Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos deserves a review.

I love novels about art, particularly women in art.  Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemesia were two of my favorites growing up, and since then if you hand me a book with a strong female protagonist and a plot revolving around art, I will read it.  So obviously, I was intrigued by Smith’s debut, and it did not disappoint.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos tells the story of the last known work of the titular character, a fictional female Dutch painter, at 3 points in time: in 1631 as Sara becomes the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke as a master painter, having found her voice as an artist after a devastating loss; 1950’s New York when Ellie, an Australian grad student and art restorer, agrees to create a forgery of Sara’s masterpiece, At the Edge of a Wood, and enters into an odd cat-and-mouse relationship with the current owner, unbeknownst to her; and in 2000’s Sydney, where Ellie, now a world-renowned art historian and curator, discovers that both Sara’s original painting and her own forgery are en-route to her museum for her upcoming exhibit on female Dutch painters.  The story jumps about in time highlighting the moral quandaries each major character faces in response to the painting itself.

I’ll be honest that I don’t remember a lot about the writing style or structure or anything like that at this point.  I read the book almost a year ago, and the specifics are fuzzy–this is why I try to write down notes after finishing each book.  But what I remember are vivid images and moments from the book, feelings of incredibly distinct characters and places and times.  Sara lives in a world of noise and chaos, where art is a trade, where people live outside as much as in, where life in 1630’s Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant and hard.  The 1950’s Manhattan where the owner at the time lives lives is dark woods and shiny finishes, cocktails and tinkling glasses, muted sounds and muted emotions, that warm light emanating from one lamp at night, everything perfectly in its place, nothing too much or too felt.  Sydney of the current day is all breathtaking vistas kept at bay behind carefully crafted picture windows, all cool tones–blues, grays, and whites, a gentle and quiet sophistication based on training and taste rather than money, again everything in its place but everything felt intently.

Smith creates these separate worlds and their inhabitants beautifully.  You feel with Sara as she desperately tries to survive in a world where women are not valued beyond the home.  Her frustrations and helplessness and fierce determination to succeed are all things we have felt.  The wealthy businessman of the 1950’s could be creepy but instead Smith paints him as sympathetic.  His choices, though odd, are understandable and never malicious.  Ellie really comes into her own in the modern segments, and the tension between her burning anxiety and vibrancy held barely in check under her carefully composed exterior is compelling.  Any one of the sections could be a novel on it’s own, but each feels right in the amount of time we spend in it.  Ultimately, I kind of remember the novel as a painting itself, even if it wasn’t written that way.

I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure I had more specific things to say when I actually remembered the details, but this book stands up well to my memory.  I hadn’t thought about it in months and then when I did, the images and moments came flashing back, almost as vividly as when I’d read them.  I think The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a beautiful story about human needs and loves and what we’ll do for opportunity, and I’d definitely encourage you to check it out.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui


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This year for the first time, I printed off a reading challenge to help push my reading in new directions.  While I’m not following it slavishly, I do get excited when I read something that checks a box or more on the list.  One of the suggestions was to read a graphic memoir written and illustrated by the same person, and Thi Bui’s haunting, beautiful The Best We Could Do fit the bill perfectly.

Thi’s graphic novel tells the story of her family’s history, from her parents’ very different upbringings and paths to each other to her family’s escape from Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon when Thi was small.  Their stories are filtered through Thi’s own lens as an adult American, and through the book she struggles to reconcile her own Americanness with her parents’ successes and struggles as immigrants and parents, especially in light of her own new motherhood.

I read this book in a single sitting and I thought a lot about it after I finished, but now, even months later, I still don’t really know how to talk about it.  It’s beautiful, open, honest, sad, happy, every emotion you can think of.  The warm oranges, yellows, and blues that dominate Thi’s evocative illustrations serve as a connecting thread between these very different periods in her and her parents lives, and you can tell the novel was a very personal project for her.  Not just because it’s her memoir but because of why she wrote it and what she works through in the creation of it.  The book  is a way for her to understand her past, present, and future and to process her love for and resentment of her parents’ decidedly non-American attitudes.  There is a moment that beautifully encapsulates this when she shares her hurt and frustration but also understanding when her mother would tell Thi’s white husband all about their family history, even in front of her, but refuse to talk about it with Thi herself for a long time.  Thi talks about how writing the novel was a decade long process of catharsis, and not only she but we are better for it.

Like Exit West, The Best We Could Do is a story of movement, loss, and love, but it’s not just an immigration story.  It asks the question, what happens as life re-balances and starts anew?  And it again reminds us that despite different experiences, people are people.  Even if you think that you’re not one for graphic novels, I highly encourage you to check this one out.




Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


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After a quick mystery break, checking out the latest in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (always fun, as is the latest installment Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed) and re-visiting an old favorite, (Louise Penny’s Still Life–everyone should read this series), I launched back into my new fiction for 2018 with Mohsin Hamid’s glorious, sparkling Exit West.

Exit West tell the love story of Saeed and Nadia, two young people in an unnamed Middle Eastern city on the brink of civil war who meet in college and form a tentative then unbreakable bond as their love grows amid violence and uncertainty.  Saeed is gentle, intellectual, emotional, and devoted to his family, while Nadia is fierce, independent, and a bit remote, but they find love and understanding in each other.  As the violence moves closer and the danger increases, doors begin appearing in different parts of the city and, as we later learn, around the world, a smattering of magic in an all-too-real situation.  The doors offer an escape for residents and innocent victims of the strife.  Nadia and Saeed ultimately embark on a journey through the doors that will test their relationship, understanding of self, and their place in an ever-changing world.

Exit West is an absolutely gorgeous book.  The paragraphs are filled with long, tumbling sentences, and it is like reading a dream.  Hamid luxuriates in language, but his writing is never languid or meandering.  Everything is focused and purposeful in his descriptions.  Additionally, he creates a fascinating reader relationship with his main characters, at once both immediate & intimate yet removed.  We know their inner thoughts and emotions without needing very much dialogue, and we feel their increasing separation through the creeping silences.  It’s almost like we are hovering over the action at times, yet it also feels like a very real relationship.

Through this lens, Hamid deals with major issues we experience in the world today: nativism and racism, the fear of refugees and the fears of refugees, the sense of helplessness in the face of change we can’t control.  Saeed and Nadia’s city could easily be Aleppo, the conflict the war launched by Syria’s government on its citizens.  The conflicts they experience in London are the same conflicts that play out weekly across the world as mass migration is forced upon people.  Saeed and Nadia’s story is interspersed with vignettes, moments with other people around the world and their relationship or experience with a door.  At first I was confused–what is the purpose of these moments?  And then I realized that they highlight the fact that we are all migrants through time and space, while Saeed and Nadia’s story represents that experience through the specific perspective of those who are forced to move.

The one thing I’m not really sure of was the ending, which kind of tapered off.  In a way in makes sense, especially if you read the book, but I still don’t really know how I feel about that ending as an ending to a book.  But perhaps it mirrors how sometimes things just taper off in real life, too.  Either way, overall it was exciting to read something that felt both so new and so familiar.

Exit West is a story of time and a story of our times.  It is a story of human adaptation and resilience, both global and individual.  It is a love story created in extremis and petered out in normalcy.  It is a story that helps us find the commonalities in human experience and look at things from another perspective.  It is luminous and coruscating (a new word that I’ve recently learned and describes this book perfectly).  It is a book we should all read, and I can’t wait to read more of Hamid’s work.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce


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After kind of a rough start to the year’s reading, I finally broke through with Rachel Joyce’s delightful The Music Shop.  It tells the story of Frank, a record shop owner on a little commercial side street in London, and his misfit family of neighbors and fellow shop owners, from Father Anthony, proprietor of the little Catholic gift shop, and Kit, the always energetic bull-in-the-china-shop who helps out in Frank’s store to the Williams’ brothers, local undertakers, and Maud, a tattoo artist who is not so secretly in love with Frank, as they try to live their lives and make a living.  Frank has a gift–he knows exactly what music you need to hear based on what’s going on in your life, even if you don’t know it.  He’s a music therapist of sorts, and his customers are few but fiercely loyal.  Interspersed throughout the present day worries about the shops going under and the street being bought by a developer are vignettes where we see Frank’s relationship with his unconventional mother, Peg, who inspired both his intense love of music and his fear of intimacy.  That is until the day they all meet Ilse Brauchmann, the woman in a green coat who upends all their lives.

This is such a sweet, charming book!  It’s kind of like reading a Richard Curtis movie, one with a distinct About a Boy vibe.  It reads quickly, and even the more serious parts have a lightness to them.  The delightfully quirky characters are all really more defined by their quirks than any real depth, but they are distinct and enjoyable.  No one was too too, and I found myself casting the roles as I read.  And most importantly, I was rooting for them.  Not just Frank and Ilse but all of them: Father Anthony, Kit, Maud, everyone.  It is their relationships with each other, their care for each other, their willingness to help each other before themselves, and the family that they create on their little street that really bring the depth to the story.  It’s almost like these are people Joyce knows, and she is creating loving tributes to them in her novel.  By the end, I was sad to see them go and glad I got to spend some time among them.

Mostly this is a book about love and the different ways it manifests in our lives: love of music, love for your community, fear of love, second third fourth chances at love.  It’s about being open to those around us and the importance of the families we make, not just the ones we have.  And it reminds us of the all-important power of music as a healer and magnifier of life, something I think most of us have experienced at one point or another.

The Music Shop is nothing spectacular, but it is lovingly and beautifully written.  You can tell Joyce enjoyed writing it, and I, as a reader, had fun thinking about music and connections in different and new ways.  The music selection in the book was incredible, and maybe one day I’ll make my own The Music Shop Mixtape.  Overall, this was a nice uptick in quality from my initial new reads this year, especially after a few disappointments from some of my regular authors.  It was refreshing, and I felt finally launched into my reading for 2018 with it.  It’s not a book to challenge you, necessarily, but it’s a book that will make you feel good.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

Phew!  Finally, it’s time to start on my 2018 blogs.  After ending 2017 on a few doozies, I started 2018 gently.  In anticipation of The Wrinkle in Time movie (which I have not yet seen), I started with re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book, one of my favorites from when I was younger.  And I had an interesting experience.  I still loved it, but I don’t know what to write about it.  That rarely happens, and so I’ve decided to not write about it for now.  Then I read the last book in one of my favorite mystery series, one that was finished and published after the author’s death, and it was good and enjoyable but not the strongest in the series, and I didn’t really feel like I needed to review it.  (But if you are looking for a fun, long mystery series set in Egypt, check out the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters!)

So the first book from 2018 that I am reviewing is Lauren Willig’s The English Wife.  I discovered Lauren Willig through her Pink Carnation series, which was a really fun 18th century female spy series that I liked to call my smart girl chick lit.  I really enjoyed most of them, and so I was interested to check out some of her other novels.  The English Wife sounded interesting, so I gave it a shot.

In turn of the century, New York, Bay Van Duyvil, heir to an old Knickerbocker family, is found murdered the night of the family’s Twelfth Night ball, and his glamorous English wife, Annabelle, is missing.  The papers immediately assume Annabelle murdered Bay, and it becomes the society scandal of the year.  But Bay’s sister, Janie, is convinced otherwise and forms an unlikely alliance with James Burke, a particularly persistent journalist, to try to clear her sister-in-law’s name and discover the true murderer.  Along the way, she discovers Annabelle’s true identity of Georgiana (Georgie) and the secrets of her life with Bay.  Interspersed with the investigation are flashbacks to Georgie and Bay’s courtship in England and their early married years as Georgie struggles to fit into New York society and meet the expectations of Bay’s domineering mother.

Sounds fun, right?  It was…fine.  Janie as a protagonist is not particularly thrilling or engaging, and the whole novel was a bit boring and bland, like Janie.  The character development is not strong.  Most of the characters are pretty superficial caricatures, and the descriptions feel repetitive without actually repeating anything.  The supposed villain Gilles Lacey feels particularly inconsistent.  He is supposed to be vicious, terrifying, etc., and we see that in one scene with Georgie, but for the most part he is such a complete buffoon that Burke’s fear for Janie’s safety near the climax feels completely unfounded.  And in fact, despite having committed multiple crimes, Lacey is kind of forgotten about at the end. The pace is also really slow, which was really surprising considering how all of the Pink Carnation books just fly.  The action and pace picked up in the last 80 pages, but the ending really felt pretty rote and airless.  No stakes, no consequences.

Additionally, the book is pretty badly edited.  And I’m not talking mistakes where you’re sitting there going, “Is that right?  Maybe?  I don’t know…”  These were major mistakes like repeated and added words and character name mistakes, such as Georgina instead of Georgiana. And this was a first run publication, not an advanced reader copy.  I will be the first to admit that I make mistakes in my writing, particularly these blogs.  And I sometimes publish without catching them, but my crack team of parental editors always shoot me an e-mail to let me know if they saw something.  (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) But here’s the deal–this blog is basically just me.  Willig has a full editorial team.  These mistakes should have been caught by at least one of them, and it’s a disservice to Willig that they weren’t.

Overall, the whole thing felt tired.  This is how I felt about the last couple of books in the Pink Carnation series as well.  I think Willig is a good writer, but her writing seems like she needs a break.  If you want some fun historical fiction, check out her early work, but you can skip this.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent


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Everyone should read a book that horrifies, guts, and completely upends them at least once in their lives.  For me, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling is certainly that book.  In fact, it left me so undone that I have spent 6 months avoiding writing the review.  This is the book that has slowed down my blog, that has put me 15 books behind.  This is the one that I do not want to revisit but absolutely must.

I picked it up as part of my goal of reading about more diverse experiences.  Honestly, though, it feels wrong to label it such.  This is not the experience of someone with a different background from me.  This is the kind of experience that no one should ever, ever have to experience and yet all too many do.  I did not know what I was getting into when I started this.

My Absolute Darling tells the story of Turtle (real name Julia), a young teenage girl who lives with her father, Martin, and near her grandfather, Daniel, in an off-the-grid cabin in the Pacific Northwest.  Martin is horrifically abusive, physically, emotionally, and sexually.  It is a cycle of abuse that started with Daniel, and after Turtle’s mother’s death, Martin has taken that cycle to new depraved depths with his insistence on a survivalist training lifestyle, complicated rules and games, and cultivation of Turtle’s social isolation and dependence on him.  The book traces Turtle’s emotional journey as she struggles to deal with her complex emotions about her father and her home life, her place in their family structure upended when Martin brings home a young girl to look after her while her mother is away.  Along the way, Turtle tests the boundaries and rules set by Martin, building friendships with two boys from school, Jacob and Brett; thawing her hostile reaction to her teacher, Anna, the only relatively stable adult in Turtle’s life; and reassessing her understanding of her parents upon meeting her mother’s best friend (and Brett’s mom), Caroline.

Tallent’s writing is vivid, viscerally descriptive, and repetitive, beating in Turtle’s experiences of people and the world.  We can’t see her world any other way because she can’t.  It could easily be a movie.  The language that Turtle uses to describe the women in her life is ugly and violent, and the language that she uses to describe herself is even more so.  It physically hurts to read.  Turtle spends most of her time swinging between loving and hating Martin, trying to love but usually hating herself.  However, she has an intense desire to take care of things, to make something grow, though she doesn’t believe she can do the same for people.  It is this desire to care that is the one part of her that Martin hasn’t affected and that he can’t touch or corrupt, and it is the one thing that she can hold onto that gives her some chance of escape and recovery.  It is the key to her survival.

As Turtle ages in the book, the writing of her character changes.  There are subtle descriptive shifts.  The language she uses for herself softens just a bit, and the language around Martin becomes less about fear and more about pity.  As Turtle matures, Martin ages and weakens, and the power dynamic changes.  She starts to assert more independence.  However, abuse is cyclical and generational.  Though Daniel, her grandfather, does his best to protect her, he is protecting her from the effects of his own past actions.  Turtle, in turn, engages in fairly constant self-blame when she is blameless and finds herself acting out against Jacob, the one person in her life who seems to truly care for her, using the same language Martin hurls against her.  All the while she battles herself in her head, desperately trying to stop the words coming from her mouth and failing.

Choices and actions have consequences.  The right choices and actions can have terrifying consequences.  The result can be horrifying.  And it is.

This was a very different reading experience for me.  It was highly emotional and highly communal.  My co-worker, Kathleen, had really pushed me to read it, and every day I came in desperate to tell her my theories and to process what I had read.  And every day she said, “Ok.  We’ll talk when you finish.”  And when I did, we talked and talked and talked.  Kathleen had worked with students who had lived this experience, and it was so helpful to talk to her and come a little closer to understanding the whole of what I’d read.  This is a book that requires a post-reading catharsis.

My main issue, and it was small, was that the actual ending of the book zeroed in on Turtle and Anna and really left out these other characters that Turtle had allow herself to care for and even love.  I wanted to know what happened to Jacob, Brett, and Caroline.  But we don’t get to know that for some reason, and that felt incomplete to me.  I also wish we’d learned more about Turtle’s mom.  We only get glimpses of her from others, but it seems clear that she failed Turtle as well. Perhaps we don’t learn more because Turtle can’t or won’t learn more.

My Absolute Darling made me physically ill to read more than once.  It has stuck with me longer than many books I’ve read.  It captures a reality that I could never even begin to imagine.  And that’s what books are supposed to do.  They are suppose to challenge us, to open us up to other realities, to teach us empathy, to force us to look at things differently.  This is an excellent book.  Even if you don’t read it, you should read something like it.  I am so glad I read it.  And I will never read it again.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez


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Sometimes there are books that really have an impact on you, not because you loved it or thought it was fantastic but because it imparts something on you that you very much need at that moment.  Erika L. Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was one of those books for me.  It is an unflinching, raw, occasionally humorous, and incredibly touching examination of what it is like to be trapped between two worlds and two sets of expectations.  Julia is the daughter of immigrants living in Chicago, and she already chafes from trying to be both a normal American teenager and a good Mexican daughter.  When her seemingly perfect sister dies, Julia is suddenly unmoored, flung adrift among the pressures of high school and college application, the potential loss of her dreams of success and path of escape, and the increasingly strict and seemingly unreasonable expectations of her traditional Mexican parents, for whom Julia is decidedly not the perfect daughter.  Julia and her mother constantly lash out and disappoint and fail each other in their grief, while her father retreats further and further into himself.  Her mother’s fears of the dangers facing her children increases, causing her to grip tighter and tighter to as much of her culture and expectations and way of life as she can, even as Julia fights against that way of life, trying to steady herself enough take advantage of the opportunities in the country her parents sacrificed so much to bring her to.

Sanchez’ writing is immediate, visceral, and graphic.  Nothing is sugar-coated, no blows are softened to make her audience comfortable.  No, we experience the extreme discomfort of Julia and her family.  And honestly, that’s what it should be.  Pretty much anything that can have a trigger warning is in this book, but it is not gratuitous or unnecessary.  It is true to the experiences of these characters.  And this is one of the huge values of this book.  If we are talking about diversifying our reading to learn about and better understand those experiences that are not our own, that is what this book does.  For me, this was extremely important.  It shows an experience, one that is not mine but is familiar to me from my work with young adults in Chicago, that I needed to learn more about.  Because, you see, when we assess our students’ readiness for programmatic success, we ask questions and tick boxes, and a student coming from a 2-parent household with no history of violence or abuse or divorce is seen as having a stable home environment.  But that’s not necessarily true.  Stability comes in many forms, as does the lack of stability.  We make assumptions about people and their lives every day based on outward appearances, but those appearances rarely tell the whole story or even the needed story, sometimes even until it’s too late.  For me, this book was a hugely important lesson on that, and it has materially impacted how I do my work.

That’s not to dismiss the book as a piece of literature, either.  Sanchez is a vivid, evocative writer.  Her mastery of voice and of real emotion is breathtaking, and she can create an incredibly specific image with just a few words.  She is an exciting writer, and this is an exciting book.

My only quibble with the book is when she talked about the suggested donation to get into the Art Institute of Chicago, a safe space for Julia.  Julia talks openly about how she often goes to the Art Institute and ignores the guards and the suggested donation as she enters the exhibits.  Except that’s not accurate.  The Art Institute has a fairly hefty admittance fee.  There are many ways to reduce the admittance fee, but there is no suggested donation and the staff and guards would not let a young adult jump the entrance into the exhibits without a ticket.  This really bothered me.  Almost everyone I’ve said this to kind of laughed and told me to not worry about it, it’s just a detail, it’s not a big deal, let it go.  But I can’t and here is why: this is a factual error on information that is incredibly easy to look up and, for some of her readers, will be common knowledge.  And Sanchez presents the information decisively and inaccurately.  Chicago is just as much of a character in this story as the human characters, and if Sanchez has not just included but made repeatedly emphasized an inaccuracy about the city, how can we know what is accurate and inaccurate in the stories of her human characters?  When we are entrusted with the stories of others, even fictional others, it is vital that we tell the stories both truthfully, which can be relative as your truth is not my truth, but accurately.  It is a matter of respect and trust.  For many readers, I recognize that this will not be a big deal, but for me, it was.  Fortunately, it was the only such error and ultimately did not mar the reading experience too much.

This book is an exploration of grief, family pressures, mother-daughter relationships, mental health, and growing up all through the lens of the different immigrant experiences of parent and child.  Julia and her mother’s struggles are born from their senses of identity clashing in an imperfect environment.  I found a Twitter post not long after finishing the book that I think sums it up perfectly.  @bosefina wrote, “My parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization.  The immigrant generational gap is real.  What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.”  This should be required reading for all of us as we move forward in this increasingly small world.