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.

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires by Simon Winchester

I finished up 2016 with a beast of a non-fiction work, Simon Winchester’s Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires, a sprawling, comprehensive history of the Pacific Ocean since January 1, 1950.  Besides winning Clunkiest Subtitle of 2016, he traces the social, cultural, and political histories, as well as the geologic and ecologic histories, of the ocean and its peoples through 10 major events, their lead-ups, and their aftermaths.  Seems like a lot, right?  Winchester spends quite a bit of the prologue exploring how to tackle a history of the Pacific Ocean because the ocean, by its very nature, is amorphous, inconsistent, unknowable, and immense.  He finally settles on his 10 vignettes, essays, really, exploring major themes through the lens of particular events that all happened in the latter half of the 20th century.  Though at first seemingly arbitrary, he uses January 1, 1950 as his starting point because that is the date that defines “present day” in carbon dating.  As such, this is a history of the Pacific Ocean in “present day” as the West begins its “pivot toward Asia”.

And with that, we were off, exploring nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands during the 1950’s, the health of coral reefs, the impact of the movie Gidget on surf culture, the birth of the Sony Corporation, the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong, the formation of North Korea, and the eruption of Pinatubo in the Phillippines and its effect on American military strategy in the region, among many other things.  And though each chapter is ostensibly about its main event, he uses this structure to cover all of the history he “tried” to filter out: for example, his discussion of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands gives a platform to discuss the history of Pacific Islander migration, methods of boat construction, the sociology of island life pre-and-post-nuclear testing, a brief history of international nuclear science,  and the ethical and moral responsibility of the 21st century American government to the people still living there today.

As I said earlier, this is a sprawling beast of a book.  However, I quite liked it.  I like learning about a lot of things and how they connect, so Winchester’s structure worked for me.  Each chapter was just focused enough around the theme that I stayed focused, but it was almost like going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole on a particular topic with a thoughtful, funny, and intelligent guide.  In short, he contextualized extremely well, and I felt like I learned a lot of new things and gained new perspectives on information I was more familiar with.  And Winchester is a lovely writer.  Conversational, witty, and someone who clearly appreciates a good story, his style is like having a conversation with a great storyteller.  There were definitely moments where the topic was not of great interest to me (though I know people who would LOVE the chapter on deep-sea hydrothermal vent formation and the life forms associated, I personally struggled a bit more with that one), Winchester handles a great many topics with skill.  I have seen some reviews that call him out as being a better science writer than history writer (and I do have to say I never thought I would find Pacific high-atmosphere weather patterns quite as interesting) because he allows more of his own experience into the travel section.  And while I do agree that sometimes his perspective or commentary is a bit (and perhaps surprisingly so) flippant, I don’t agree that his subjectivity is necessarily a bad thing.  Winchester is not writing an authoritative text.  Like Bill Bryson, he takes a subject he is interested in, learns about it, and shares what he learned, along with his reactions, with his readers.  So take that as you will.

That’s not to say Pacific is a perfect book.  It is long.  It does jump ALL over the place.  It is dense and can be slow going when it’s something you are not interested in. (I’m looking at you, deep-sea hydrothermal vents.)  As engaging as much of Winchester’s writing is, he loves an exemplifying series and lists to a fault.  And I say that as someone who loves lists, series, and long, convoluted series.  It led to an occasionally disorienting reading experience at times.  And honestly, I think it needs stronger editing.  Because of its structure and length, I’m sure it was a challenge to edit, but there was sloppy proofreading throughout the book, and it detracted from the experience.

I don’t necessarily think Pacific is for everyone, but I think there is something in it to interest almost everyone.  I struggled to push through the density at times, but I learned a lot, good and bad and everywhere along the spectrum.  And I also feel like it is a beneficial, contextual read as we shift our focus more and more toward Asia and the world gets smaller and smaller.  There are lessons to learn and mistakes to not repeat, and this book reminds us to think critically about the effects of our decisions.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

After almost 2 months of not posting (yet continuing to read all the while), I finally have some time to review my last two books of 2016, starting with Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility.  Now, you all know my undying love of his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, and so I did something I rarely do: I immediately read another book by the same author.

Rules of Civility tells the story of 25-year-old Katey Kontent, a young secretary in 1938 New York.  In a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937, she and her glamorous roommate Eve make the acquaintance of Tinker Grey, a handsome banker who’s charm and devil-may-care attitude change Katey and Eve’s lives forever.  As the threesome wind their way through New York nightlife, Katey is able to leverage her way into an editorial assistant position in the Conde Nast offices; befriends a myriad of  characters in the upper echelons of society; and learns the gritty, nasty, often violent truths hiding under the shimmering facades of money and glamour.  It is a novel of friendship, love, ambition, coming into adulthood, and finding oneself, and the joy and sadness that often accompany those experiences.

I liked this.  I liked this a lot.  But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should have.  This book was my mom’s favorite book her book club has read.  I heard similar reviews from others.  And so I wanted to love it.  I mean, Love it with a capital “L”.  But I didn’t.

The writing is wonderful.  Towles, in his first novel, has really established himself as a writer for the ages.  His settings are evocative, his characters fully formed, his plots complex and inventive while still being beautifully subtle.  I appreciated Katey as a modern heroine, a woman ahead of her time.  So often men write female characters to fit tropes: the “ambitious career girl”, the “edgy girl who has to get her life together”, the “nerdy girl”, the “blonde girl out for sex and booze”.  And, honestly, Eve feels a little tropey at times, with her tumultuous relationship with Tinker, her flakeyness belying inner cunning, yadda yadda.  But Katey is fully-formed, an inherently good yet familiarly complicated woman striving to find her place in an ever shifting world full of contradictory societal expectations, family obligations, personal and professional desires, and the ever important question of who to trust and who to really befriend.  In short, she is me, she is you, she is every woman, every person really, who has grappled with these questions, obstacles, and goals.  Katey is a character you want to follow.  She is a character you want to spend an entire book with.  And so I appreciate Mr. Towles for getting it right with Katey.

I also think Towles is a master of setting and atmosphere.  His New York feels Gatsby-esque without being derivative or referential.  It’s a real place, a place where the glitz lives next door to the grime and what you see out in the world is not necessarily what can be seen at home.  He gets the juxtopositions right: the feel of society parties vs. the working-class parties; the feel of Tinker’s palatial condo vs. Katey’s old studio; the tensions between the past, present, and future.  And again, the characters who inhabit the various facets of this world are real, too.  It could be so easy to tip over into kitsch or fetish of this time period and its culture, but Towles toes the line just right: just enough to be enticingly scandalous without feeling tawdry or over the top.

So what’s the problem?  Well, honestly, it wasn’t A Gentleman in Moscow.  I think if I had read Rules of Civility first, I might have been waxing completely rhapsodic in this review, following it up with how Gentleman is even better, a rare second novel that improves on the first!  Instead, I read them in the wrong order, I guess.  Instead, my love of Gentelman and expectations for Rules led to a slight feeling of disappointment.  But that’s not to say it’s not excellent.  It’s just that Towles keeps getting better as a writer.  And if these two are anything to go by, I absolutely cannot wait for his third!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles


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Ok, my absolute favorite book I read this past year was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  I discovered it before it really hit through the Book of the Month Club (great idea, not really my thing, oddly) on a special deal for first time customers.  One of my main issues with BoMC is that few of the monthly options pique my interest enough to make the financial commitment, but A Gentleman in Moscow did, and boy, am I glad I went for it!

The novel tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat deemed unrepentant by the Bolsheviks and saved from the Gulag only by a pro-proletariat poem he wrote in his youth, is sentenced to house arrest at his beloved Metrolpol hotel, a grand imperial-style hotel across from the Kremlin in 1922.  A man of leisure, he is unconcerned by his imprisonment until he is evicted from his sumptuous rooms and escorted to a small room in the attic–former servants quarters now used as storage.  As Rostov’s geographic world contracts, his emotional world expands, and we have the joy and honor of experiencing subsequent decades of Russian history through the charming, witty, and erudite eyes of the most congenial of men and the windows of his elegant hotel.

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I loved this book!  I suspected it might be good because Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility seems to be everyone’s favorite book club book they ever read.  Certainly that was the case of my mom, cousin, etc.  I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading Rules of Civility when my copy of Gentleman arrived in the mail, so though I had high expectations, I didn’t really know what those expectations should look like.

Well, it was a dazzling read.  From the beginning Rostov, who should be mildly off-putting due to his presumptuousness and absurdness, is completely charming, the kind of man who is genuinely kind and curious behind his aristocratic veneer.  And behind that veneer is also a man who is fiercely loyal to his grandmother, sister, and best friend;  well-educated and well-mannered yet more pragmatic than one might think; equal parts adaptable and rigid as appropriate; a problem solver rather than a wallower; and above all one who values love, friends, and human relationships.  The other characters are equally fully drawn, from the little girl who spies on Bolshevik dinners from the ballroom balcony and the sinister waiter who slithers up the ranks without knowing the difference between a Rioja and a Beaujolais to Rostov’s new compatriots of the maitre’d and the head chef and the hotel seamstress. Each one has his or her own fully-formed backstory, goals, fears, and loves, all teased out and revealed in asides and conversations over the course of the novel.  We fall in love with them as completely as Rostov does.

For me, one of the most extraordinary parts of the novel is Towles’ beautiful prose, particularly in his control of tone and atmosphere.  Honestly, the first part of the novel felt a bit slow to me until I realized that Towles was creating for us the readers the same feeling of constriction and claustrophobia that Rostov felt as his life was pulled out from under him.  As Rostov evolves, his world, and so the feel of the novel, grows, too, with his new (or perhaps first would be more accurate) job as waiter in the hotel restaurant, his re-examined and re-negotiated relationships with hotel staff-turned-colleagues and friends, his adventures with the mischievous girl, and his secret room expansion up in his attic home.  Rostov’s adaptation to and growing satisfaction with his new life is captured in the tone, the pace, and the ultimate expansiveness story as a whole, and we feel even more than explicitly read his personal journey.  It’s simple and breathtaking prose.

A review on NPR describe this novel as light, airy, charming, Eloise at the Plaza if Eloise were set in Stalinist Russia, NKVD and all.  And yes, Rostov is breezy and his story is episodic and much time is spent on he and his friends collecting ingredients to create the perfect bouillabaisse, unheard of in a time of deprivation.  But I feel that misses the heart of the story, which is the capacity of the human heart to grow, adapt, and change to meet the needs of its person and those important to him or her.  This is not a flashy story of self-realization and major growth, the kind of story that would be turned into a huge Hollywood movie with Will Smith or Robert Downey Jr. or Bradley Cooper giving a major public declaration of change to get back the girl/his family/his job/whatever while standing in the middle of a street backed by sweeping strings and sparkling percussion.  This is a quiet story of a man who had and lost it all…well, lost a lot…and finds new purpose, new family, new reasons to love in the simplest, most unexpected places.  This is a story of being reminded why life is worth living, and that should not be dismissed, no matter how much shimmer it’s hiding behind.

This is the book I want everyone to read.  I know that I am not adequately capturing my feelings for it, and I fully recognize you may not like it as much as I did, but I strongly feel you’ll be doing yourself a disservice not to read it.  Even if you don’t like the story, Towles is a master writer, crafting some of the most evocative and beautiful language of anyone writing today.  So take a weekend and travel through Russia’s history with Count Rostov.  It will be an utterly delightful journey.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel


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Like many this past fall, I fell into the Upside-Down and binge-watched Stranger Things over the course of several days.  (My binge-watching stamina is a little low, with the exception of the first 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, much to Michel’s extremely mild frustration.)  Upon finishing, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the Guillermo-del-Toro-esq world of menacing demagorgons, alternate dimensions, talking Christmas lights, and the delightful kids (especially Dustin) in this wonderful homage to 80’s sci-fi.  And so I’m pretty sure I googled “books like Stranger Things” and came up with Sylvain Neuvel’s completely different yet equally weird, inventive, and mostly fun first novel. Sleeping Giants.

One night, Rose Franklin is riding her bike near her home in South Dakota and disappears.  When she is found just a little bit later, she is discovered siting on top of a giant silver hand at the bottom of a square shaft with glowing, carved walls. 17 years later, Rose is now a top physicist leading a top-secret team trying to crack the mystery of the giant hand and the hole it was in.  All the while, Rose and her team are being interviewed by a nameless investigator whose allegiances and motivations are unclear.  As Rose and her team make progress, it becomes clear that the mysteries of the hand are not of this world and could have greater and longer-lasting ramifications for humanity that ever imagined.  Along the way, the relationships between this group of incredibly disparate people form and are tested, some surviving and some breaking, both with potentially disastrous consequences.

Ok, so not really Stranger Things, except for the kid on the bike disappearing near the woods at night piece.  But the vibe was very consistent: a little bit exciting, a little bit creepy, and completely compelling with a lot more at stake than everyone realizes.  What’s really interesting, though, is the form of the novel.  It is told entirely from the point of view of this mysterious interviewer, and the text is transcripts of every conversation he (I think it makes clear at some point the narrator is a he) has with the other characters.  So this sets up a really interesting situation for us as the reader: we meet every character through a specific, heightened, not normal situation and get to know them through the lens of someone studying them.  As a result, it is almost impossible to tell which characters, including the interviewer, is reliable or not.  Interestingly, this supposedly objective, emotionally unattached, morally ambiguous interviewer breaks from his persona a few times, indicating clear allegiances to certain members of the team and clear aversions to others.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he has clear allegiances and aversions based on how well various characters’ goals and motivations align with his unstated higher goals and motivations.  Either way, while we are never entirely sure who to trust, we are certainly nudged toward who to like.  And I liked our unflappable investigator–especially in moments where he was, in fact, flapped.

The other element that I particularly liked about this novel is the focus on language.  Neuvel is a Québécois linguist (with a PhD from the University of Chicago), and a lot of the major themes revolve around the role and power of language in this investigative process, whether it is deciphering the glowing glyphs lining the sides of the hole, understanding and following the “instruction” (or what they think are instructions) for the giant hand, or the simple and not-so-simple human to human communication that is basis for the narrative.  The role of language and communication has always been a part of sci-fi, but I feel like recently it’s been gaining a new focus.  Communication between our world and the Upside-Down was a key element in Stranger Things.  The new movie, Arrival, is all about an alien invasion that is more an invitation to talk rather than a typical invasion.  (Though as far as I know we don’t really know what a “typical” alien invasion would be.)  But what all of these have in common is not just the focus on language but the focus on the power, danger, and value of language in communication and miscommunication.  For in all 3 of these examples, our human language is not enough, and the characters are forced to find new ways to not just to communicate but to listen and understand.  And that it right there: humans as a species already have enough trouble listening, understanding, and really communicating among ourselves.  How can we be trusted to do so at a higher, perhaps more galactic level?

I shan’t say any more lest I completely spoil it, but I really enjoyed Sleeping Giants.  I thought it was incredibly inventive, thought-provoking, and well-crafted.  And don’t be afraid of the “sci-fi” designation.  It’s really not traditional sci-fi, but it’s very much about the human experience and our role in the larger world.  Lucky for me, it is the first in a trilogy, the second of which, Waking Gods, is already out.  But lucky for you, if you don’t go in for series, it’s a very satisfying read on its own, and the ending is crafted beautifully for those readers who wish to continue and for those who don’t.  I encourage you all to check it out; even if it doesn’t knock your socks off, it will certainly make you think.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey


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One of my favorite books this year is Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World.  It is a fictionalized account of the first expedition to explore Wolverine River in the newly-acquired Alaska Territory, led in the novel by Colonel Allen Forrester.  Forrester records his exciting, harrowing, and even inexplicable experiences in his journal as letters to his wife, Sophie, who remains at the Vancouver Barracks, and who write letters and records her own experiences at the barracks as she bucks against the social expectations of the other soldiers’ wives by taking up photography and indulging her love of birding. Meanwhile, Sophie and Allen’s writings are punctuated by the scientific recordings and moral ravings of an unidentified voice (though it is easy to figure out who as the story goes on), as well as the context-setting and friendship-forming correspondence between Walter Forester, Allen’s elderly great-nephew, and Joshua Sloan, the young curator of the local museum in the Wolverine Valley, to whom Walter wants to donate the Forrester’s papers.

Ivey’s second novel, like her first, The Snow Child, deals beautifully with the history of exploration in Alaska and the interweaving of native and settler cultures.  Ivey’s protagonists are always a little bit on the fringe of their societies, marching to the beat of their own drums, and this otherness makes Sophie, in particular, a truly compelling heroine, for heroine she is, despite holding down the fort in Allen’s absence.  Sophie’s sections were the ones I looked forward to the most.  Here is a woman, out of place in her East Coast home and equally othered in her new home in Vancouver: intellectually curious and a bit of a social odd duck but who found love and care with an equally intellectual yet unconventional man, the army hero who is more invested in people than accolades.  Allen is what allows Sophie to enter into the replacement society of the Vancouver Barrack, a society that playacts the “refined parties” and social structures back East.  But when he’s gone, it is Sophie who handles the gossiping women who pass judgement on her every act; Sophie who deals with a difficult and, at times, terrifying pregnancy; Sophie who bucks convention to learn the art of photography; Sophie who manages the accounts carefully and precisely; Sophie who builds a darkroom in their home; and Sophie who creates an entire life for herself while leaving just enough space for Allen to fit into when he comes home.  Sophie is at once historical and familiar, and she does not shy away either her societal othering of the barrack’s women or her self-recognized othering of her own intellectual and artistic pursuits.  We can all aspire to be Sophie: the person who not just survives but rises above, claims her agency, and finds purpose and joy in the face of challenges big and small.

I did love Allen’s sections, too, for that’s where the mystery and danger and adventure were.  Ivey does a marvelous job interweaving the folklore of the native peoples of the area into the story, exploring the intersection of myth and reality and the questioning Allen and his men engage in based on their line-blurring experiences.  Seeing is believing but what if you don’t know how to believe what you see?  Allen’s experiences with othering end up being drastically different from Sophie’s.  Like her, Allen is othered by his experiences and the people that he meets, but it is clearly a new experience for him, the one used to being in control and in command, not only of those around him but his environment as well.  His journey through the Wolverine emphasizes his and his team’s position as both cultural and environmental outsiders: they are new to the country, its mysteries, and its dangers, as well as to the people who live there.  Modes of survival, rules of social interaction, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality are all at odds with Allen’s entire life experience, and he and his team are at the mercy of nature’s brutal fickleness, the generosity of people who have no reason to treat them kindly, and the mysterious forces at work around them.  Through it all, Sophie is Allen’s constant, keeping him anchored through the increasingly inexplicable events of his journey.  The two on the fringes of their worlds find safe harbor with each other.

Honestly, this is a gorgeous book.  Perhaps it a bit of a tough sell–a novel about the exploration of the Alaska Territory might be dry, boring, or even gruesome to some, invoking images of last year’s Oscar winner, The Revenant.  However, as with all good stories, it is the characters who stick out, who make the tale.  In this review, I hardly touch on Walter and Josh’s burgeoning friendship, but it, too, is one where those who are different find comfort in each other and teach each other in the process.  I feel like I’d been on a reading spree of books that I liked just fine, but To the Bright Edge of the World started me on a sequence of books I loved.  So do yourself a favor and check it out.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is an author I’ve often thought I should read but never got around to doing so.  So when a friend from work told me that Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was one of her favorite books and she’d lend it to me, I immediately took her up on the offer, and I’m so glad I did.

Set primarily in Boston and India, Interpreter of Maladies tells 9 stories of the Indian and Indian-American experience, but honestly, they should be considered stories of the human experience: how love, loss, and dreams tear us apart and bind us together over generations.  A young couple deals with the tragic stillbirth of their baby.  A young boy learns of the confines and beauties of his neighbor’s world due to her fear of driving.  Other couples navigate the uncertain waters of new marriages, arranged and unarranged. An interpreter guides an uninterested American family through their history in India.  A young woman finds herself after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her status as her married boyfriend’s mistress.  A neighborhood in Boston deals with nightly blackouts. The emotions and dreams and experiences are familiar even when the specific situations may not be, and Lahiri’s characters feel like our friends and family and even ourselves.

Honestly, after each story I felt sad.  Not a loud, vocal sadness but a quiet, heavy sadness that sat in my chest.  Sadness for the small injustices of daily life, sadness for the momentary regrets and frustrations, sadness for those characters who felt such sadness themselves.  But then came the last story, and it was such an uplifting story of hope that it made me appreciate and even savor the emotional journey Lahiri had just taken me on.  Lahiri does not deal in explosives but rather in simple realities of the every day, and as I finished the last story feeling such satisfaction with my reading experience, I realized how deft a writer Lahiri is.  She is an author who has mastered both the art and the craft of writing, and she has done so in the most subtle yet effective ways.  Despite her subtlety, though, she wrote some of the most gorgeous prose I have ever read in these stories.  Sentences that would just knock me over and leave me breathless with their simple beauty. I don’t ever really remember ever being quite so bowled over by language before.  I wish that I had written some of her language down to share with you, but I didn’t and I returned my friend’s book long ago upon finishing it.  So I leave it to you to go read it and see for yourself.

Interpreter of Maladies is one of those books that sticks with you long after you finish, one of the reasons it’s taken me a while to write this post, actually.  After finishing it, you just want to ruminate on it for a while.  But don’t mistake that for a reluctance to recommend.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I am so grateful that I finally read some of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work.  She is a true master of the written word, and it was a privilege to spend some time with her writing.  I’m looking forward to reading more, and I encourage you to do so as well.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 by Jack Thorne & John Tiffany.

It was with mixed emotions that I awaited my pre-ordered copy of Jack Thorne and John Tiffany’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2, the script of the play based on a story by J.K. Rowling.  On the one hand, more Harry Potter in book form!  On the other hand, it’s not actually written by J.K. Rowling–how would these…interlopers…handle my beloved world and characters?  The only way to find out would be by reading.

Harry Potter and the Curse Child Parts 1 & 2, currently playing to rave reviews in London, picks up where The Deathly Hallows leaves off: at King’s Cross Station as Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and Draco and his wife all see their children off to Hogwarts.  Harry’s second son, Albus, is nervous about everything and immediately strikes up a friendship with Scorpius Malfoy, and both end up being sorted into Slytherin.  Over the next few years, Albus deals with being in Slytherin, the pressure of being Harry Potter’s son, and their fraying relationship, while Scorpius grieves the death of his mother, combats rumors that he is actually Voldemort’s son, and generally struggles being a Hufflepuff trapped in a Slytherin family (at least, that’s my theory).  One break, Amos Diggory shows up at the Potter household demanding that Harry use a recently confiscated time-turner to go back in time and bring back his son, Cedric (who died instead of Harry in the Goblet of Fire, natch).  Harry refuses, and Albus convinces Scorpius to help him steal the time-turner and do what Harry will not with the help of Amos’ cheerful nurse, Delphi.  Hijinks and real danger ensue, including a break-in at the Ministry of Magic, where Hermione is now Minister of Magic and Harry is head of the Aurors; the adults chasing the teenagers through time; and mistakes made that drastically change the present and future for the worse.

Sounds cool, huh?  And I bet Rowling’s story is great!  And I wish that she had just written another book.  You see, the play is…just awful.  Like truly terrible.  Like my heart just continuously sank further and further until by the end of the play, it was in my toes, broken into pieces.  Ok, maybe not that bad, but it’s not good.  I’d put it about at the level of mediocre fan fiction.  There are so many things that I could point to, but I will highlight just a few.

  1. The play’s authors do not understand Rowling’s characters and how to write them.  Albus and Scorpius should be about 14 or 15 for most of the play, and yet they read like 8 year olds.  It is very difficult to buy them as characters in Rowling’s world let alone as complete, nuanced teenagers.  And then there are the adults.  Harry, Hermione, and Ginny are all fine, if a little generic, but Ron.  Poor Ron.  He doesn’t deserve this.  Thorne and Tiffany turn Ron into a joking buffoon.  Say what you will about Ron: he may not have Hermione’s book smarts or Harry’s finesse, but Ron has magic street smarts, heart, and humanity, and he is no buffoon.  My dearest hope is that the actors who play him have a better understanding than the playwrights did.
  2. Several scenes in the play come directly from the novels, yet the playwrights feel the need to invent dialogue that is not in the novels.  Well, the scenes are from a different perspective, so that’s expected, right?  What I’m talking about is dialogue that takes place in both the play and the novels.  Case in point: Ludo Bagman’s Tri-Wizard Tournament commentary is pretty clear in most of Goblet of Fire.  There is no need to change any of that dialogue, but the playwrights do, taking Bagman from a full-formed character to a cartoon.  It does not add anything and, in fact, detracts from what already existed.  J.K. Rowling signed off on this play; I’m sure she would have been fine with them using her words.
  3. The big “twist” is telegraphed from early in the play.  There is virtually no surprise when you find out what it is because anyone with a pulse could have guessed it from shortly into the first act.  That’s just sloppy structure.

Overall, the playwrights miss the heart of the world of Harry Potter.  Characters are thin caricatures of themselves from the novels, and it feels like Thorne and Tiffany are mimicking Rowling without actually understanding what made her, her characters, and her world great.  I have been hearing, from professional reviewers and friends who have seen it, that the play is spectacular.  And I can see that.  If you have the right people in the roles, the right production design (absolutely crucial based on the quality of the script), and the right director, this play could be the Wizarding World come to life for a few hours.  But that in itself is a problem.  For a play to be truly good, it should stand on its own merits as literature.  Think Angels in America, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Macbeth, etc.  You get the point.  Unfortunately this play does not.  It just falls so sadly short.  So if you are a Harry Potter completist, read the play.  If you are a completist with the ability to fly to London, see the play instead.  If you have a more casual relationship with Harry Potter, don’t bother.  You can Wikipedia the plot, if you really want to know.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I hit a bit of a lull in my reading this summer.  I usually have my reading selections planned several books in advance, and suddenly I found myself at the end of my stack with no idea where to go next and a kind of bored restlessness about choosing one.  Choose one, though, I did, with the recommendations of a few friends.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a book that my mom’s book club had read a few years ago and that I’d seen many times on her bookshelf but never picked up.  Another friend recommended it one day when I was on my way to the used bookshop, and after finding a copy there, I decided to give it a go.

The Language of Flowers tells the story of Victoria Jones, a prickly and mistrustful young woman who ages out of the foster-care system in San Francisco and find herself having to figure out how to build a life for herself.  She relies on her knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers, where flowers communicate specific meanings to their recipients, to land a job at a florist shop, where she wows customers with her special bouquets and forms human connections that would be difficult for her without the shield of floral communication.  In alternating chapters, Victoria remembers the closest she came to having a family with her foster mother, Elizabeth, when she was 10; how Elizabeth taught her to communicate with flowers; and the disaster that prevented them from forming a permanent home.  By the end, past and present collide as Victoria has to decide what she ultimately wants from life: independence or a family.

This book was an interesting read for me.  I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it.  Victoria’s (justified) negative attitude was rather consuming, and I found myself taking on a similar bad mood every time I picked up the book.  Additionally, I felt like the story wasn’t the right size.  To me it felt like there either needed to be more or less, particularly at the end, which felt very neat and pat and wrapped up with a bow.  Maybe I wanted more there?  More conversation, more acknowledgement of the past, more something?  After every horrible thing that had been done, said, laid out, was it really that easy?  Not that Victoria has had an easy life, but I think because of her hardships, it just felt insubstantial in the end.

That being said, it is an incredibly fast and engrossing read.  Historically, I have prided myself on never missing my train transfer on the way home.  If I did, I would add an additional hour to my commute home due to the train going express to the north suburbs after that stop.  The first time in my life I missed that transfer was while reading this novel and being so caught up in it that I didn’t realize I had missed the transfer until 10 minutes into the ride to the suburbs.  So that’s something.

Again, I’m not sure I enjoyed this book. I know people who very much did, who loved it for its unique story, vivid characters, and use of the language of flowers as a framing device.  I am not one of them, but I appreciated how it makes you think: about hopes and dreams, missed goals, the fragility and strength of relationships, how we can both be our own best friend and worst enemy, and ultimately about how life can surprise us in the best ways, if we will let it.  So I say, yes, read The Language of Flowers.  I have no idea how much you will enjoy it.  But I can say it will be a worthwhile read.