Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine Howe

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine HoweThe Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe
Published by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 1250304865
on June 25, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe returns to the world of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with a bewitching story of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curseConnie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America—especially women’s home recipes and medicines—and by exposing society's threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.

When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.

Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades—and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.

I happened upon The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in a bookstore shortly after it was first published and snatched it up immediately. Salem? Witches? Academia? Right up my alley for sure. As soon as I found out its followup, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs was coming out, I preordered it, which is something I rarely do. You do not have to have read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in order to enjoy its followup, but I think you will enjoy it more if you do. In fact, after finishing The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, I want to go back and read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane again.

This book offers a bit more of Deliverance’s backstory, but mainly focuses on her descendants Connie, as Physick Book did, and Temperance (also Connie’s ancestor). Readers are also treated to peeks inside the lives of each generation of the family going back to Deliverance’s parents in England. I had to go back and make a family tree for myself, but it’s a bit spoilery, so I’ll put it at the end for those of you who want to read the book first.

Just as I did with Physick Book, I connected personally in many ways with this book. Just like Connie, I called my own grandmother Granna, and I thought I’d invented the name. When I told Katherine Howe this story years ago, she said she thought she had made it up, too! Prudence’s diary reminds me a great deal of my own ancestor Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary, and Katherine Howe shared she had been inspired by Prudence Ballard’s  A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. This book has some other interesting connections. Connie is working on obtaining tenure as a history professor at Northeastern University, where I am currently pursuing a doctorate in education.

This next bit is maybe the tiniest bit of a spoiler, but I don’t think knowing it in advance hurts anyone’s enjoyment, so I’ll spill. There is a sort of interesting parallel for me in that Connie considers applying for a position at Harvard, but realizes it would not work for her. I actually applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education doctoral program. I didn’t get in (it’s at least as selective as undergraduate admissions, though I hear getting into their master’s program is pretty easy—but I already have a master’s and didn’t want to work on another one, even at Harvard). I was really bummed out about it, but I had a conversation with a friend of Steve’s, who made me feel better about the rejection and also encouraged me to apply to another program. I applied to the program at Northeastern. I was really attracted to it in the first place when I was making a list of graduate schools to apply to, but I think I was charmed by the idea of attending Harvard, just like Connie is initially charmed by the idea of the assistant professor job at Harvard, even though she knows it will not lead to tenure, and the job at Northeastern will. It’s so weird!  I know now that the program at Northeastern is much more suited to what I want to do, where I am in my professional life right now, and the goals I have for the future. Just like Connie. I know it’s a minor similarity, but I connected to it.

One of the things I like about Katherine Howe’s writing is her eye for the tiny detail—the way someone leans against a countertop or plays with their hair—it brings her characters to life. I feel like I can really see everything she is describing. Her characters are also interesting and likable. I really liked Connie’s protege Zazi Molina. Temperance herself is an awesome character as well. As in Physick Book, the book’s settings themselves, from the old house on Milk Street in Marblehead, to Connie’s apartment on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, to the probate office in Salem, all the settings come alive. This is a fun and engaging read, but you’ll also learn something about history into the bargain.

Here is the family tree if you want it. Mild spoilers.

Deliverance Hasseltine Dane (parents are Robert and Anne Hasseltine)
+Mercy Dane Lamson
++Prudence Lamson Bartlett
+++Patience Bartlett Jacobs
++++Temperance Jacobs Hobbs
+++++Faith Hobbs Bishop
++++++Verity Bishop Lawrence
+++++++Chastity Lawrence
++++++++Charity Lawrence Crowninshield
+++++++++Sophia Crowninshield Goodwin
++++++++++Grace Goodwin
+++++++++++Constance “Connie” Goodwin

five-stars

2019 Reading Challenges

I always like to participate in reading challenges because it gives me a focus for my reading. I am planning on doing the following reading challenges in 2019, even though I’m in graduate school.

I enjoyed the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge this year. I don’t think I’ll complete it. I was stumped about what to read for a “Vacation Read” in the summer, so I never did that one. However, I think the motifs for 2019 look interesting, and I’ll give this challenge another whirl. I will try to do the challenge book each month. I am also going to try to do a bit better about reviewing each of the books I read and posting them to the challenge linkup pages. If I commit to completing the challenge, it means reading 12 books that fit the various monthly motifs.

I like to do the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre. I think I’ll go easy this year, though, and just try for the 20th Century Reader level of two books. I am also trying to branch out and try other kinds of books, so it might be good for me to stretch beyond historical fiction.

I also want to try the Reading Women Challenge. I like the fact that this challenge is open-ended. Though there are 24 categories with two bonuses, the goal of the challenge is really just to read as many women as possible. I am going to shoot for completing 12 of the categories, but I’m not sure right now which ones. A lot of them look like fun to me! If I were not in grad school right now, I might try finishing the challenge with 24 books and the bonuses, but I think it might be a bit much for me.

I didn’t do so well last time I tried backlist challenges, but I think that’s because I was doing two of them at the same time. This time, I’m just going to do one. I like the Beat the Backlist Challenge because it has lots of prompts and a Hogwarts House challenge, too. I’m all about that! I’m, of course, competing for Ravenclaw. I think I’ll try to read one book from my backlist for each month, so I’m shooting for 12 books.

That’s it for right now. I’m sure other challenges will catch my eye between now and January 1, and I’ll update this post once I find out about new ones. I usually try to do the R. I. P. Challenge, though I kind of think it’s lost its heart now that Carl isn’t doing it anymore. He was so enthusiastic about it.

I will be creating my challenge progress page in the new year. I’m hoping to find a bit more of a writing rhythm. I lost my balance when I started my doctoral program. Even though I have mostly been able to keep up with my reading, I was not able to keep up with reviewing what I had read. I am not sure how many books I want to commit to reading next year.

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: The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco ISBN: 0062306847
on June 2nd 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . ."

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

I can’t remember when I bought this book for my Kindle. I think maybe it was one of those deals, and the book had caught my eye in any case because of its cover. However, it looks like it’s been shelved on Goodreads since June 2014, which is around the time it was released, I believe.

I read most of this book (nearly 2/3 of it) today in one pretty big gulp. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, things seem to be happening left and right. The book feels well-researched, with strong historical details that ring true. The book even has a glossary detailing further information about economics and Dutch terms from the seventeenth century. The characters are also vivid and interesting. One thing that struck me as I finished this book is one constant in human history is man’s inhumanity to man as well as the perseverance of strong women in the face of the world’s cruelty. On the other hand, some details don’t ring true—women characters in historical fiction are often more a reflection of our own times than theirs, and I can see why. I don’t really want to read about a meek woman who keeps her mouth shut and does as she is told, either. Perhaps the least plausible aspect of the book is Nella’s devotion to Johannes. He hasn’t been all that great of a husband, truth be told. And while certain aspects of his behavior would be viewed differently today than in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the way that he consistently ignores Nella and her feelings didn’t engender a whole lot of sympathy from this reader.

Many times when I am reading a book, I am curious what others on Goodreads have to say about it, and in the case of this book, one reviewer noted she thought the conceit of the miniaturist was unnecessary. This might merit a spoiler alert, but really, we never do learn much about the strange miniaturist who knows so much about Nella’s home and the dangers coming or what motivates the miniaturist, so in that sense, I can understand why some might consider the character unnecessary. I am undecided, myself. Mainly, I was curious as to what inspired the book, because it reads like something definitely inspired it, and I found this snippet from an interview Jessie Burton gave in advance of the BBC’s miniseries based on The Miniaturist:

I was in Amsterdam on holiday. We went to the Rijksmuseum and that’s where I first saw the real dolls’ house, which is actually called a cabinet, which became the symbol of the novel and my point of focus for writing it. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was and how imposing it was, as well as intricate and intimate. Then when I found out that the woman who owned it, Petronella Oortman, spent as much money on it as a real house, I became interested in the psychology of the cabinet house and what it symbolised, both in regards to the city of Amsterdam and this woman is her domestic, claustrophobic existence. It took her 19 years in total to complete it and she hired the services of over 800 craftsmen and women in the city of Amsterdam and beyond. In my mind’s eye all I could see was one woman, Nella, turning up at this imposing merchant house in Amsterdam.

Using the real Petronella Oortman as inspiration, Burton invented Petronella Oortman Brandt. I didn’t realize it had been made into a miniseries before searching for information about the book’s inspiration. I don’t believe the miniseries has been released in the USA.

In all, I enjoyed the book quite a bit for what it was—an interesting peek into the life of a merchant’s wife in seventeenth-century Amsterdam rendered with some very nice passages of good writing.

  

This book counts for the Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge due to its setting of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Netherlands. March’s motif for the latter challenge is “Travel the World.”

 

four-stars

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars

2018 Reading Challenges: Part One

challenge book photo
Photo by Upupa4me

It’s that time of year again! We’re halfway through December, and the new year is in sight. Time to sign up for reading challenges. I like to figure out where I might focus my reading each year, but in all honesty, I don’t actually complete most of the challenges I take on. Still, the challenges make me think about what I want to accomplish in the reading year ahead. Thanks to Kim and Tanya for collecting a great list of reading challenges and updating the list each week.

The first challenge that catches my eye is the Author Love Challenge. I’m in for five of James Baldwin’s books.

I think I participated in the Back to the Classics Challenge a couple of years back, and it was a great one for helping me focus my reading. Like a lot of people, I have a list of classics I keep meaning to get to. I’m just now reading 1984, for example. I’m in for six categories, but I’m not sure which ones at the moment.

I like to do some kind of challenge involving reading books from the UK because I love British literature. This year I participated in the British Books Challenge, and I plan to participate again next year. I’m not sure what I will read. This year, I completed the challenge with ten books, but I didn’t review most of them because most of them were re-reads. I think this year, I will try to read at least five, all of which are new to me.

I’m in once again for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I have done this one many times. I don’t think I’m meeting my goal this year, but that’s fine. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, but because I’m trying to branch out, I’ll shoot for five books—Victorian Reader.

I love theme-y types of challenges, and the Monthly Motif Challenge looks like a fun way to diversify my reading selections. I’m going to try to participate each month and read a total of 12 books toward the challenge.

I can’t resist any challenge that asks me to “travel” through books. I’m signing up for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge, and I’m shooting for Literary Hitchhiker, 25-40 countries. I’d like to think I could branch out a bit more and do more than the minimum, but looking at my usual reading patterns, I think 25 will even be a stretch for me. It will be a good excuse to diversify my reading.

That’s it for now. I’ll write a new post for any additional challenges that I might want to do. I’m purposely not doing any challenges that require me to tackle books I already own or that are already in my TBR pile. I found those challenges limiting and hard for me to complete, especially when really good books came out that I wanted to read—those books tended to go on my TBR pile, and I wound up spinning my wheels a bit.

Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

Rating: ★★★★☆