Alias Grace

“Alias Grace” is based on true events in mid-19th century Canada. Margaret Atwood takes a lot of artistic license to flesh out the story of Grace Marks, but she acknowledges the embellishments as well as the facts that hold the plot together. Alias

Grace is a recent Irish immigrant to the Toronto area and soon begins a life in service (maid) to make money for herself and to avoid being a “burden” to her alcoholic father. After making a good name for herself she finds an offer to be the made for Thomas Kinnear who lives some miles outside the city. This important choices leads to a crime that rocked the area and left many wondering what actually happened and if justice was served.

At first I thought this book was going to be about female autonomy and agency. We hear about the toil of women with no access to birth control who are overburdened with too many children. Then we see the exploitation of young women servants by the male employers (or their sons) or the precarious line a woman must walk in order to maintain a good reputation.

The focus shifts then to the idea of truth and whether we can really ever find out “what happened” when it comes to a crime or whether truth is manipulated to fit the narratives the accused want to tell and society wants to hear. I found this thread to be most interesting especially considering the plethora of true-crime docu-series proliferating on tv.

The focus shifts from the truth in crime to mental illness and the development of humane care for the mentally ill as well as discussions of what constitutes mental illness and how to tell if someone has been cured.

Ultimately the book ends on a very bland note. I felt that a lot of the important threads are just left for the reader to piece together. I found myself asking the dreaded question, “what was the point of all that?” There was a lot of potential but I feel like it was wasted. The writing itself is spectacular and drew me in as I plowed through the novel. By the end I found myself losing interest and having to almost force myself to read it.

This makes for a good book club discussion because, at least for me, I need some outside help to process and make sense of the content of this tome.

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Americanah

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “Americanah.” I’ve heard many good things about Ms. Adichie’s work, but with the book being almost 600 pages I was afraid of committing to it. Am I glad I did. From the opening pages I was hooked into the characters and the plot. This book didn’t feel like I was reading it but rather that I was experiencing it. Americanah

We begin with present Ifemelu as she prepares to return to Nigeria, her country of origin. She’s spent her college and post-grad years in the U.S. but now decides it’s time to return home. The book flashes back and together Adichie weaves Ifemelu’s story through flashbacks and present-day episodes.

We also meet the character of Obinze, Ifemelu’s high school boyfriend. Several chapters are devoted to his point-of-view which adds commentary to Ifemelu’s perspective. Towards the end of the novel the past catches up to the present and the two perspectives merge, all done so seemlessly it’s hard to tell exactly where it happened.

There’s so many layers to this book it’s hard to pick just one. We could talk about modern-day Nigeria written by a Nigerian writer, the immigrant experience, the view of American race-relations from a non-American Black perspective, or about finding and maintaining love across decades, continents, and conflicts. All of these layers add depth to the characters and made me feel as if each one could step off the page and I’d know them immediately and we could grab coffee and pick up the story where it ends. Specifically, Adichie wrote some of the best male characters I’ve encountered from a female writer. I felt like many of them could’ve been men that I’ve known and grown up with.

All in all I would recommend this book as
a top read. It is a commitment. The layers of meaning and rich characters make it worth it in the end.

LaRose

“LaRose” begins with a tragedy. In an effort to make this tragedy right, Landreaux Irons, architect of the tragedy, offers his son LaRose to the Ravitch family. The Irons and Ravitch families have a long history as Nola Ravitch and Emmaline Irons are half-sisters. Landreaux and Peter Ravitch are hunting buddies. The rest of the novel explores what happens to all of the characters’ lives as a result of this event. LaRsoe

I struggled with this book, which isn’t often the case. The writing was done so well that I stopped seeing words and I was transported to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota and could see the sights, sounds, and smells. The problem was that the characters were too real, the problems too connected my own world, that someone like me who likes to escape from these things couldn’t with a book like this.

The plot itself was also a hurdle for me to leap in order to understand the masterful storytelling. The first ninety percent of the novel left me with a headache trying to figure out why I was being exposed to seemingly random events in the lives of some very complicated characters. It didn’t make sense until I had a conversation with my wife in which I was complaining about all of this when she asked me, “how do you tell the story of a life or how do you tell the ripple effects of a major event in a close-knit community?” Suddenly it all made much more sense.

I had to embrace the chaos and disjointed connections because that’s what life is. There’s not a beginning to end line that connects our births to our deaths and that’s not how we connect our lives to others’. Erdrich reminds us that no one’s life is unconnected from someone else’s. This was both an unsettling and beautiful reminder of what it means to be part of a community.

Make Your Home Among Strangers

Jennine Capo Crucet’s “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” is a novel set during the Elian Gonzalez conflict of the late 90’s. A young woman, Lizet, finds herself coming home for Thanksgiving from her first year at college at the same time as Elian arrives into Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.Strangers

The main conflict in the novel is Lizet coming to terms with being the first in her family to attend college. She’s struggling not just with homesickness, but with culture shock, academic rigor, implicit bias, and feeling like she’s abandoned her family. She’s also processing a sudden change in her family makeup and feels overwhelmed with all of these changes.

Throughout the novel, Ms. Crucet crafts non-archetyped characters. While many of the characters seem like they would fit into neat little stereotyped boxes, we are presented with nuance and development that gives us a more complex view the world in Hialeah and Little Havana. Specifically, we are shown the characters’s motivations for their actions. While it’s hard to agree/affirm their decisions, there’s no denying that the characters feel that they are making the best decision they can with the life they’re facing.

Several of the minor conflicts that are developed really hit home with me. The first is the subtle racism and implicit bias that Lizet faces when she arrives at her college in New York. The way her roommate and neighbors treat her, you’d think they’d never met another hispanic girl. They ask her the most stereotypical and patronizing questions that made me roll my eyes with the ignorance of it all. Even while I’m face-palming the girls’ actions and questions, once again Ms. Crucet’s sharp writing keeps these White girls from being demonized. Yes, they are ignorant, but again, it’s because they’ve never been taught or exposed to a world outside their privileged bubble.

This conflict bleeds into another sub-conflict that is woven into the plot of the novel. Socio-economics plays a big factor into how students relate to one another, and to how Lizet’s community views her as she steps into a world that they see as not theirs. Lizet soon meets other students from similar socio-economic statuses and realizes that while they may not be all the same race, they have similar conflicts and can relate to the trials overcoming these obstacles.

This was one of those books I wanted everyone around me to read just so I could talk about it with them. When art imitates life, it’s hard not to want to hear how others related to the conflicts or their thoughts on how character development played out. The “real” factor of the book was the most moving element of this book. It felt like any of these characters could be a real person. They were all so complex it made me want to follow each of them around separately just so I could find out more of their story.

I appreciated that the conflicts in the book were developed in such a way that it didn’t seem to overtake the characters. I didn’t feel that this book was “about” race, class, immigration, or higher-ed. Yet, you can’t ignore that these topics are part of Lizet’s experience. This is a highly recommended read. Hat’s off to you, Ms. Crucet!

Before the Fall

I had a conflicted reading of this book. Part of it was that the book was billed as a mystery/thriller and that’s not what was delivered.Fall

The book starts with some New York elites preparing to leave their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard on their private jet. We quickly meet the characters who will become the crux of the story: the media mogul and his family, banking scheister and his wife, the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant, and the struggling artist.

The plane crashes (not a spoiler, it’s given away on the book jacket) and only the artist and the media mogul’s son survive. From there an investigation is launched into why and how the plane crashed.

While the plot moves forward regarding the investigation we get flashbacks of each of the individuals’ lives and how they came to be on the plane.

Mixed in the plane crash investigation plot line is a sub-plot about how the media, specifically a Fox News-like cable news channel and how a Bill O’Reilly/Alex Jones type character spins the story to find “the truth”.

The big takeaway from this book is the danger of toxic, privileged masculinity. In each layer of the plot, the men who feel they are “deserved” of the things they deem theirs cause the most damage. The author subtlety works this message in and it allows the reader to come to this conclusion on his or her own.

An enjoyable read, with important social critique, better editing and organization could’ve improved this read, but I’d still recommend it.

The Cider House Rules

Have you ever read a book and were looking for how the title relates to the story? then when you found the connection you thought it was pointless and then wondered why you’re still reading the book? That’s pretty much my experience with The Cider House Rules. cider

There’s an interesting story at the heart of this book but it gets lost in the mire of random character musings and odd plot spin-offs. We start with Homer Wells and how he can’t find a permanent adopted home away from St. Cloud’s Orphanage. Then suddenly we’re given a complete background on the man who runs the orphanage, Dr. Wilbur Larch. Who finds himself both delivering babies and giving abortions. Then we go back to Homer Wells who clearly becomes the main focus of the book. Homer’s story focuses on him finding a home and making a family and struggling with the idea that he belongs at St. Cloud’s; as if he owes them something.

I liked Homer but I don’t think the author knew what to do with him sometimes. As a reader, I sympathized with him, was weirded out by him, admired him, and cheered for him. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do? Several of the other characters were
entertaining if not obnoxious at some points. There were also a lot very odd sexual things happening in the book.  More time was spent talking about, and saving, pubic hair than I cared for.  And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Several good ethical points were brought up in this book regarding birth control, abortion, the medical field, race relations in the North pre-, during, and post-WWII, but again, they all mire together and by the end you just want the book to stop.

It Can’t Happen Here

There’s a good story in here somewhere. The premise is intriguing. What would’ve happened had a populist presidential candidate, who campaigned on the promise that he would give the lower classes exactly what they wanted, had won the 1936 presidential election? The result is a watered-down version of Nazi Germany in Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here. Happen

This book has seen a boon in sales recently, seeing as how we have elected a populist president who’s given the lower-classes (i.e. blue-collar Whites) what they wanted. The difference is that so far the checks on power have not failed and we have not devolved into tyranny. While the political consequences of the book have no come true, I understand why some would want to read about a book that warned against this type of political upheaval; it’s a good cautionary tale. What doesn’t work is the vehicle Lewis uses to carry his idea in.

We bounce around from Doremus Jessup, a rural Vermont newspaper editor, and the cadre of despots in Washington. The plot of the book reads like a movie you may have seen on TCM or the like. It’s set in the 1930’s and the actors can’t decide whether they are going to stick with melodrama or devolve into stand-up comedy. It wasn’t clear to me whether Lewis was trying to keep the book from becoming to heavy by adding in the random comedic attempts or whether he just didn’t know how to write characters that are complex.

The protagonist, Jessup, reminded me a lot of “1984”‘s Winston accept that Jessup is not as misogynistic, nor as poor-me as Winston. At the same time, my eyes are still sore from the many eye-rolls when Jessup complains that he just wishes he could spend more time with mistress in order to escape all of his wife’s flippant comments about American politics.

I’m also not convinced that Lewis wasn’t a hermit. A lot of the dialogue seems flat as if everyone is reading the script some seventh grade wrote about mobsters. The worst offenses occured whenever Shad Ledue would try and make a pass at Sissy. If men really talked like that, and women really responded as she did, I’m shocked that humanity has been able to survive.

Ok, enough savagery. Read this book if you dare, but maybe read it in installments with something more exciting in between to cleanse your literary palate.

The Sisters Brothers

Carl and Eli Sisters are two hired guns on the West Coast during the California Gold Rush era. We follow them from their hometown of Oregon City to San Francisco to the foothills of the Sierra. They are hired gunmen and their target this time is a prospector who may have found a way to discover gold using science. Along the way, we learn the complexities of being a gunslinger that is often times overlooked in many of our Westerns as well as the fact that these brothers share many of the same qualities and complexities that modern brothers exhibit. Sisters

Patrick DeWitt unravels some of the myth around Western gunslingers.  He makes them in seem more complex and less heroic, more relatable yet more detestable.  I appreciated this more “human” look at this American archetype.  Too often I feel we tend to romanticize the West and the people who settled it.  With nostalgia has come a gloss of denial. Ultimately, The Sisters Brothers are no John Waynes.

DeWitt’s honest portrayal of the West and life in the West made me appreciate it.  While I’m not from that era, clearly, having lived in California, Washington, and Nevada, I appreicated the way in which nature is portrayed not just as a setting but as a character unto itself.  I think that the West tends to be seen today as some hippie-leftist bastion, while we forget that it was. It’s neither villainized nor romanticized.


There’s also a surprising character, Eli’s horse Tug, who represents the relationship between man and nature and how man tends to destroy the latter. Trigger warning: animals are harmed in the plot of this book. Again though, it’s not maudlin. It’s honest and, what I believe, contributed to the sometimes aloof vibe that many Nor Cal folks give off.

The Best American Non-Required Reading 2015

“The Best American Non-required Reading” is an anthology of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels that is selected by a committee of high school students. As a high school teacher, I was curious to see what high schoolers would select as the best literature. I found their picks interesting and surprising. Non 2015

Wells Tower’s “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?” was eye-opening as it was shocking to read about the account of big-game hunting. Tower is open about his bias (anti-elephant hunting) but is objective in his portrayal of the wealthy Americans who do participate in the hunt. He doesn’t villanize them, but he does ask important questions.

Victor Lodato’s “Jack, July” takes us into the mind of an addict much like “Requiem for a Dream.”

“780 Days of Solitude” is the account of the three Americans who were held in Iran on charges of espionage. It’s written by the three young people and was a take on the story I hadn’t read before. I’m interested to read their entire book this was excerpted from.

Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden Walk” shares his journey walking from Ethiopia through Russia tracing the route of human migration. The selection in the anthology covers his time in Palestine, Jordan, and Turkey.

There’s so many more I want to highlight, but I’d basically be recommending 80% of the book. While many of the pieces were well written, I had trouble appreciating the collection as a whole.  Having so many different genres mashed into one collection, I felt that I wasn’t able to settle in a enjoy reading the book cover to cover.  I found that I had to keep shifting my thinking switching from fiction to non-fiction to poetry and it gave me a bit of a headache.  Reader beware.

The Devourers

“The Devourers” is going to be one of those books that I think people are either are going to really like or really not like. It’s a modern day story about Alok who lives in Kolkata and meets a stranger. We learn from this stranger that he’s half shape-shifter (what we might call a werewolf). Alok and the stranger develop a sort of friendship and the stranger asks Alok to type out the stories found on two scrolls the stranger has been carrying. We jump back in time to two different story lines. One is from a Nordic shape-shifter, Fenrir and the other is Cyrah, aDevourers woman we meet in Northern India but who hails from further west. As Alok types out these stories, we begin to see the connection to the stranger.

There’s many different ways of reading this book, so it’s hard to put into words what it’s about. On one hand it’s looking at the nature of humanity through non-human eyes. It’s exploring what love means to different people and how we expect and do express love. There’s also a questioning of who are identities are and whether they are fixed or fluid.

This would be a good text to add in a study of mythology/folktales as it gives the “werewolf” a sort of origin story and history much like “Dracula” did for Vampires. I would say there’s a lot more depth in “The Devourers” than “Dracula” but the former does a better job than say “Trueblood” or “Twilight” has done to update the Vampire mythology.