Review: There There, Tommy Orange

Review: There There, Tommy OrangeThere There by Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf ISBN: 0525520376
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 294
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

This book is a stunner. I checked into it after hearing so many teacher friends talking about it on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. I plan to incorporate it into my curriculum for a new Social Justice in Literature and History course I will be proposing.

Not only is the language masterful, but Tommy Orange created memorable characters, connected in some ways to other characters. All their paths will converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. I haven’t quite read anything like it from a Native American writer, in part because Orange focuses on the “urban Indian.” I learned quite a few things I didn’t know from this book as well. For example, I had no idea Native Americans “occupied” Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The book raises many issues worthy of discussion, from the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, to spousal abuse, to child neglect, to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to the importance of storytelling, to recapturing lost culture, to OCD. Yet, it never feels like a novel stacking as many issues as society confronts as it can all at once. It just feels like it’s telling it like it is.

By the end, I was invested in the characters and hoped they might each find some closure. It’s a beautiful, poignant novel, and if I hadn’t read Homegoing this year, it would run away with the title of the best book of the year for me. As it is, it’s a tough call. I might have to have two favorites.

I am calling it a wrap on the Monthly Motif Challenge for 2018 and electing to classify this as a repeat of the “Diversify Your Reading” theme from January. I never did a Vacation Read in July. Perhaps I’ll try to squeeze that last book in during my winter break.

five-stars

November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

R.I.P. Challenge 13

RIP ChallengeIt’s that time of year again. Time for the R. I. P. Challenge! This is my favorite reading challenge for many reasons. There is a real sense of community and fun surrounding this challenge, and it’s also perfectly suited to the time of year.

I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew because I am starting my doctoral program in a couple of weeks, but I’d like to shoot for Peril the First: reading four books that fall into one of these categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, and Supernatural.

I am not sure what books I will count yet, but follow this challenge and my other reading challenges on my reading challenge progress page.

As a side note, I haven’t updated the blog in a while, but I have read a couple more books that I decided not to review because I was feeling fairly “meh” about them. Both of them are part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Review: Homegoing, Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Vintage ISBN: 1101971061
on April 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Format: Paperback
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half-sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Hitchhiker's Guide, #2) by Douglas Adams, Martin Freeman
Narrator: Martin Freeman
Published by Random House Audio on July 3, 2006
Pages: 6
Format: Audio
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four-stars

Facing annihilation at the hands of the warlike Vogons is a curious time to have a craving for tea. It could only happen to the cosmically displaced Arthur Dent and his curious comrades in arms as they hurtle across space powered by pure improbability, and desperately in search of a place to eat.

Among Arthur's motley shipmates are Ford Prefect, a longtime friend and expert contributor to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the three-armed, two-headed ex-president of the galaxy; Tricia McMillan, a fellow Earth refugee who's gone native (her name is Trillian now); and Marvin, the moody android who suffers nothing and no one very gladly. Their destination? The ultimate hot spot for an evening of apocalyptic entertainment and fine dining, where the food (literally) speaks for itself.

Will they make it? The answer: hard to say. But bear in mind that the Hitchhiker's Guide deleted the term "Future Perfect" from its pages, since it was discovered not to be!

LENGTH 5 hrs and 50 mins

My husband and I finished listening to this one tonight. I had previously listened to and reviewed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I hadn’t gotten around to this one yet. After listening to Hitchhiker’s Guide together, we decided to keep going.

These books are relatively short and pretty funny. My husband remarked after we finished the book that Douglas Adams must not have been an outliner, and I agree, this one felt like it meandered a bit—literally like the writer might have been going along for the ride to see where the characters would take him. I’m not sure it is quite as good as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but it’s not bad, and Martin Freeman is an excellent narrator. The production values on this audiobook are considerable as well. At times, Freeman’s voice is digitally altered. I believe this series of audiobooks was released to coincide with the film in 2005, in which Freeman played Arthur Dent.

The book is no good as a standalone. It picks up right where The Hitchhiker’s Guide leaves off, and it ends without tying together any loose ends. It feels very much like what it is: a book in the middle of a series. It’s definitely a fun book and probably more fun in audio

four-stars

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamaraI'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Gillian Flynn, Patton Oswalt
Published by Harper ISBN: 0062319787
on February 27, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

"You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark."

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called "the Golden State Killer." McNamara pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by McNamara's lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not the kind of book I would normally read, but I picked it up for several reasons: 1) my husband said it was good*; 2) this month’s Monthly Motif Challenge is “Crack the Case: Mysteries, True Crime, Who Dunnit’s,” so reading it offered and opportunity to keep my streak going with that challenge; 3) I was curious because the elusive Golden State Killer (as Michelle named him) has recently been found through DNA technology—40 years after he committed his first rapes; and 4) my husband and I went to Boston to see Michelle’s widower, Patton Oswalt, talk about this book and his wife’s work (this was before the killer had been apprehended), and his discussion of both the book and Michelle’s work intrigued me.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was Michelle’s own story—she explains where her fascination for crime came from and also describes her methodical detective work. Stephen King, who blurbs the book on the back cover put it this way: “What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined.”

I have a hard time with the concept of dwelling too much in the darkest recesses of the human psyche. I have occasionally watched and read true crime (hard not to when you are married to Steve Huff*), but by and large, I find it hard to inhabit that world. I vividly recall having a difficult time coping with it when my husband was researching a horrific child killer named Joseph Edward Duncan about a decade ago. I knew too many details about his crimes that I didn’t want to know, and as much as I admire my husband’s writing and his brain, I found it hard to continue to read his writing in this area. I don’t think he blames me for that.

One thing I think Michelle does really well is walk a fine line between giving necessary information while avoiding lurid details. Not to say you won’t be creeped out if you read this, and fair warning: true crime writers inevitably have to share some of the details. I am really glad I read it knowing that the Golden State Killer had been caught. My husband was out of town this weekend while I was reading the book, and I was having trouble sleeping a couple of nights in a row after we went to a U2 concert—I guess I was keyed up still—and the cat made a noise, and I nearly jumped out of my skin before remembering the guy was in jail and I live on the third floor anyway. He’s not likely to be creeping in my window. I could relate to Michelle’s story of nearly braining her husband with a lamp when he startled her awake one night. She said, and this line stood out to me, “There is a permanent scream lodged in my throat.” That sentence fascinates me because even after reading the book and understanding how she was really interested in getting to the bottom of mysteries, it is terrifying work. I can’t understand engaging in work that puts you in that position when you don’t have to be. My husband and I were talking about it, and he tried to explain it, and I guess it’s never something I will understand.

I was also fascinated to learn how much Michelle was able to coax law enforcement to share with her. I told my husband that if I were a cop, I am not too sure I’d want to work with any armchair detectives, but he says he thinks it depends on the cop, and also, many are grateful for any help they can get on cold cases and recognize that sometimes, people outside the situation connect dots that law enforcement doesn’t. For instance, my husband was one of the first people to find suspects’ social media accounts at a time when it seemed like law enforcement didn’t know how to do it.

Michelle accurately guessed that the Golden State Killer would eventually be found using DNA. With 12 (possibly 13) murders and over 50 rapes, the GSK left behind a lot of DNA, and he had some rare genetic markers in his profile. Michelle also posits in the book that he may have been in the Air Force (he had been in the Navy) and possibly even a police officer. He was (the frickin’ creep—in Auburn, CA, a suburb of Sacramento). He was actually fired as a police officer after shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. Michelle was also correct that the GSK was also the criminal known as the Visalia Ransacker, who broke into homes in Visalia, CA and basically moved things around, stole things, and probably killed Claude Snelling, who caught the Ransacker attempting to rape his daughter. Michelle also guessed that he lived pretty close to where he was eventually found: Citrus Heights, CA. Most chillingly, Michelle accurately guessed the way it would go down.

You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk…

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark, you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

Reports say that the Golden State Killer was shocked when he was finally caught. I believe the timing of the book’s release and the GSK’s capture in the same year—within months—is no coincidence. Michelle’s writing about the case brought renewed attention to unmasking criminal behind the decades-old cold cases. For all I know, Michelle shared some of her ideas with law enforcement, who then acted upon them. She may be the real-life Sherlock Holmes, solving the mystery and allowing Lestrade and Scotland Yard to take the credit. Obviously, this is just conjecture on my part, and the folks in a position to say probably never will. That’s way it works.

Michelle died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. She hadn’t finished this book yet when she passed away, but her husband was determined that it be finished. It appeared in print a scant few months before the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, was finally unmasked. His DNA matched that of a distant cousin who uploaded DNA to GEDMatch, and a forensic genealogist pieced together his family tree. To be sure they had the right guy, police swabbed DeAngelo’s car door handle while he shopped in a Hobby Lobby store and swabbed a tissue from his trash to confirm the match. DNA doesn’t lie. It’s potentially problematic from a fourth amendment point of view that we can now conduct these kinds of investigations, but I can’t deny I feel good they caught this particular guy. It’s chilling to think he was probably within a decade or so of getting away with a rape and murder spree that’s truly horrifying. I am glad his surviving victims will have that closure and that he will have to pay in some measure for the crimes he has committed.

This book might interest other folks, like me, who are not invested in true crime, but folks who like reading about true crime will probably really like this book. Michelle is a good writer in an oeuvre in which good writing is regrettably rare. You can still read her blog, True Crime Diary. You can hear Michelle and Steve talking true crime here if you like. You can read a guest post he wrote for Michelle’s blog here, or this one about JonBenet Ramsey.

*Full disclosure: my husband writes often about true crime and knew this book’s author, Michelle McNamara. They never met in person, but I know they frequently corresponded and that they read each other’s work. That said, I never knew her or spoke with her. However, I couldn’t stop myself from using her first name throughout this review, something I avoid doing when I write about authors, because that’s who she is around this house—just Michelle.

 

four-stars

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne YoungSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
Published by Wednesday Books ISBN: 1250168457
on April 24, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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three-half-stars

OND ELDR. BREATHE FIRE.

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother's betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

I received a signed first edition of this book in my Owl Crate box subscription. The cover and premise of the book intrigued me. Sky in the Deep is unusual in that its Viking-inspired setting and warrior heroine aren’t often found in YA fantasy. The book’s trailer does a good job capturing the setting, the real star of the novel:

The egalitarian society Adrienne Young describes in the book is one of its more interesting aspects. Women and men both can be warriors, healers, spiritual leaders. Eelyn, the novel’s heroine, is a warrior, and based on descriptions of her prowess, a pretty good one. Despite a lot of wishful thinking, I believe the jury is still out on the extent to which shieldmaidens were a real thing in the Viking era, though a quick glance at Norse myth supports the idea at least in part. I liked the Riki characters Eelyn winds up living with, but one can’t help cry foul over the Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure how healthy it is for YA books to continue with the trope of the woman who falls in love with someone who captures and in this case, abuses the protagonist—he has his blacksmith fit her with a slave’s collar. Fiske never emerges as very interesting to me anyway; though he’s written in that swoony way you see in a lot of YA fiction, it’s not overdone (to the author’s credit). I loved that the author didn’t try to make the reader fall in love with Fiske.

In any case, the book is a quick, fun read. Be warned: it’s pretty violent. Young doesn’t flinch from describing this warrior culture in full detail. Many of the names—both people and places—come from Old Norse and are still in use today. In searching out some of the names in the book, I stumbled on the author’s Pinterest board for inspiration. Of course, now I’m looking for it to link it, I can’t find it again. I halfway wonder if she’s made it private in the days since I found it. I am not sure why, but discovering that Pinterest board of inspirational images utterly charmed me.

This book is different from typical YA in many ways, and it’s easy to keep turning the pages, and though the plot unwinds in a fairly predictable fashion, the ride isn’t any less fun. I probably would have loved it had I read it as a teen, and given that is who the audience is, it’s worth giving it a try if you’re in that demographic. If you’re not, you still might enjoy it.

Though it might be more accurate to describe this book as Viking-inspired fantasy, I’m still going to count it as historical fiction also because I think it fits that genre, even if the story is not strictly based on true historical events. For the Literary Voyage Challenge, I’m settling on Norway as a setting.

 

 

three-half-stars

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh NguyenThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press ISBN: 0802124941
on April 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.

A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

I’ve been working on finishing this book for a long time, and I am trying to figure out why it was so hard to pick back up again on the occasions when I put it aside because I did like the book. I don’t have to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book (I love Wuthering Heights and find all the characters difficult to sympathize with). So, even though the narrator can be difficult to “like,” I don’t think that is the problem. I can appreciate a finely tuned sentence. I think ultimately, however, the plot really needs to move along, and in some places, the plot of The Sympathizer plods. Two notable exceptions are a chunk of the middle of the book when the unnamed protagonist is consulting on a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet, that is clearly modeled after Apocalypse Now and Platoon and again towards the end after the protagonist is captured upon returning to Vietnam. I recognize Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnam War is exceptional in that the war’s defeated have controlled the narrative about that war, starting with movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and continuing with novels like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I love that novel, but it erases the Vietnamese people entirely from its narrative. In my favorite passage in the book, the protagonist reflects on his failure to reclaim the narrative through working with the director of The Hamlet:

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

The Sympathizer is brilliant. I think it suffers a bit from some of its own good press. For example, Ron Charles (who writes brilliant reviews for The Washington Post), described this book as “a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age.” So, I was expecting a thriller. It’s not, really. As to the rest of Charles’s description, it’s accurate, and his review will give you an excellent idea about what makes the book great. Ultimately, it dragged in some places for me, but I can appreciate what Nguyen has done with this novel.

 

four-stars

Review: I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin

Review: I Am Not Your Negro, James BaldwinI Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0525434690
on February 7th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 144
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

To compose his stunning documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck mined James Baldwin's published and unpublished oeuvre, selecting passages from his books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent now as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin had envisioned a book about his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. His deeply personal notes for the project have never been published before. Peck's film uses them to jump through time, juxtaposing Baldwin's private words with his public statements, in a blazing examination of the tragic history of race in America.

We need James Baldwin right now. It’s strange to read words he wrote in the 1960’s and 1970’s and find so much around you that you recognize. He is maddening, frustratingly incisive about America.

To look around the United States today
is enough to make prophets and angels weep.
This is not the land of the free;
it is only very unwillingly and sporadically
the home of the brave. (97)

Reading this book and watching Raoul Peck’s accompanying film brings to mind this poem by Claude McKay:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Baldwin’s relationship with America is equally complex. He left for France to escape. As he explains in an excerpt from Dick Cavett Show in answer to philosopher Paul Weiss, brought on the show to rebut Baldwin:

You talk about making it as a writer by yourself, you have to be able then to turn off all the antennae with which you live, because once you turn your back on this society you may die. You may die. And it’s very hard to sit at a typewriter and concentrate on that if you are afraid of the world around you. The years I lived in Paris did one thing for me: they released me from that particular social terror, which was not the paranoia of my own mind, but a real social danger in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody. (88)

But Baldwin returned to America. As Baldwin says,

But I had missed my brothers and sisters
and my mother.
They made a difference.
I wanted to be able to see them,
and to see their children.
I hoped that they wouldn’t forget me.

I missed Harlem Sunday mornings
and fried chicken and biscuits,
I missed the music,
I missed the style—
that style possessed by no other people in the world.
I missed the way the dark face closes,
the way dark eyes watch,
and the way, when a dark face opens, a light seems to go everywhere.
I missed, in short, my connections,
missed the life which had produced me
and nourished me and paid for me.
Now, though I was a stranger,
I was home. (13-14)

Of course, he returned to France and lived there until his death. Baldwin was clearly frustrated by America’s inability to change. I wonder what he would make out of America today. I guess I don’t need to wonder. I know. What he said to Dick Cavett in 1968 still holds true:

I can’t say it’s a Christian nation, that your brothers will never do that [kill you] to you, because the record is too long and too bloody. That’s all we have done. All your buried corpses now begin to speak… [W]hen… any white man in the world says, “give me liberty, or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger, so there won’t be any more like him. (81-82)

That was 50 years ago.

As Baldwin so aptly and succinctly concludes, “The story of the Negro in America / is the story of America. / It is not a pretty story” (95). So what do we do? Even Baldwin is not without hope. As he says near the end of the book, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; / but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (103). We do need to face who we are and who we have been. Baldwin makes this request:

What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him… If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question. (109)

This book should definitely be paired with Raoul Peck’s film. The book is a loose collection of notes and snippets of transcriptions. What it offers that the film doesn’t is a chance to slow down and savor Baldwin’s language. He was truly a gifted writer and thinker. However, it is when the word is paired with image and film (as well as music) that Baldwin’s words truly come alive. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin beautifully (I admit I wasn’t sure about how that was going to be until I listened). I viewed the film through my Amazon Prime subscription as it is unavailable on Netflix, but here is a trailer:

For the Author Love Challenge, I am reading the work of James Baldwin.
This month’s motif is Book to Screen.

five-stars

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy BrillThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 1594487448
on April 18th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams. It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. but when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

Amy Brill’s writing reminds me a bit of that of Tracy Chevalier, though perhaps not quite as deft. As the inspiration for Brill’s Hannah Price is Maria Mitchell, I wonder why Brill didn’t just write about Maria Mitchell. I assume she wanted to take some artistic license with the story, especially perhaps in bringing in Hannah’s student Isaac Martin. I might have appreciated the storyline the more if Hannah had continued to view Isaac as a friend a pupil. I didn’t necessarily need a love story. And the love story was impossible for their times in any case.

Brill explains in her author’s note that she changed some dates. For example, Maria Mitchell met Mary Somerville in 1858, but Brill placed the meeting between Somerville and Hannah Price some eleven years earlier. Hannah’s friend photographs Mizar and Alcor in 1847, but the real photograph was taken a decade later. After I read that, I wondered if the technology to take the photograph even existed in 1847. If not, that’s a pretty large issue. Brill paints the setting of Nantucket well, and I enjoyed her characters, especially Isaac.

I initially started reading this book some time back and put it down for a while. It had been a long time since I’d put it down, so I just started over again. My reason for reading it now is that the Monthly Motif Challenge theme for April is “Read Locally.” I couldn’t really find much of anything to read that’s set in Worcester, but Worcester does get a mention in this book when the third-person narrator explains that many Nantucketers had moved to find work in the Worcester mills. Close enough!

four-stars