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October 19, 2020

Book Review: The Hate U Give

 The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas


    When I started reading this book, I began to lament how depressing it was.

    In the first 25 pages, the novel's focus is revealed -- a young, unarmed black man is gunned down by a white cop during a questionable traffic stop. Given today's real-life versions of that very narrative, I feared it would continue along that heartbreaking path.

 
    It did. 

    But its overall tale was offset with accounts of ordinary Black life. The narrator and protaganist here is a teen-age Black girl, whose concerns include her schooling, her high school friends, boys, her family, her parents and her social life. She frets about how she and those around her have changed since middle school. She reacts with dismay, but is secretly proud, when her parents openly show affection.

    She acknowledges living in two worlds and practicing code-switching -- living a proud Black life with her family and friends in the 'hood, but playing down her Blackness when she is with her white friends at school. The two lives really interact. Her parents are unaware she has a white boyfriend at school.

    Similar to the protagonist in On The Come Up, Thomas's second novel, Starr Carter is a bright, observant, talented black girl trying to make her way through life. But unlike Bri, who rails against the inequities through her rap music, Starr plays along to make her way through both of her worlds.

    Still, Starr suffers through the discrimination, the poverty, the bullying of police, and the humiliation of being treated as less of a person at school and on the streets. She deals with the trapped violence in her neighborhood, and grapples against speaking out and risking more trouble, or staying quiet and accepting the 

    She struggles to find the common ground, working to stand up and speak out when she must, yet protecting herself and her family when she can.

    Thomas portrays her vividly, letting us in on her secrets and her fears. Thomas is a wonderful writer, bringing us into a world we don't know, taking us around, introducing us to the people and places. She shows us and lets us see a fuller picture of her world, and I for one am grateful.

October 9, 2020

Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo


    This book is additional proof that the Booker Prize never leads you astray.

    It also shows the benefits of reading literature.

    The 2019 winner of the British-based prize, by Evaristo, an Anglo-Nigerian writer, was cited for "a gloriously new kind of history for this old country."

    Indeed. These seemingly random, but ultimately interconnected profiles of women -- mostly of color, but young and old, cis and trans, gay, straight, and bi -- are a wonderful collection of tales from groups who seldon are heard from and less often listened to. But these women deserve to be seen and heard, and noticed.

    And they are. And it is good.

    These vignettes tell the stories of women's lives. They demand that people like me -- a white, older male -- listen to their struggles and their success. The show me their cultures -- old, new, and joined. 

    Some show why they left their African or Caribbean homes for a difficult if more prosperous life in England, and how they fought to survive, adapt, yet hold on to their past.

    The descriptions connect mothers and daughters, or grandmothers and granddaughters, or descendants to their ancestors, and show us the lives of several generations. 

    One woman clings to her Nigerian heritage, but has no plans to return to her native home. Despite the racism and the poverty, her home and her life are now in England, and she cherishes being British. Another dreams of returning home, but cannot see a future for her there. Another not only lives her Nigerian culture, but desires to pass it, unchanging, to her daughter. But her daughter prefers her own Britishness, which she has fought hard to accept and be accepted in.

    The book's format allows for a full telling of an individual's prosopography. First, we hear from one woman, giving her background, her experiences, and her views on her life and work. A following chapter will tell the story of another person, until it slowly dawns on us that she is related -- by blood, marriage, or heritage -- to a previous person in the book. Then another individual's profle is told, and that person gives insight into previous -- and perhaps a future -- character.

    It's a compelling collection of tales, full of surprises, evocative yet pointed in its writing, colorful in its descriptions, and sensitive in its narrative.While it may not show the full panoply of women's views and stories, it tells a wide and impressive range.

October 4, 2020

Book Review: The River Capture

 The River Capture, by Mary Costello


    Costello's first novel, Academy Street, was a must read for me because it told about a young Irish immigrant woman to the United States, who moved to the Inwood neighborhood in New York City.

     This could have been about my mother, my aunts, many of  my cousins. We all lived in Inwood, blocks away from Academy Street. We grew up in Inwood Park and went to Good Shepherd Church. 

    I could relate.

    This book, not so much. 
    
    Instead of a poor, lonely Irish woman looking to get by as an mmigrant, The River Capture tells the tale of a Irish man returning to small town Ireland. Luke O'Brien, a Dublin teacher and Joycean scholar, decides to chuck his city life to return home, take care of an aging aunt, fix up the family homestead in Waterford, and write a book about the man who both enamors and haunts him.

    But he accomplishes none of this. Instead, he mopes.

    The problem here is not the setting, the writing, nor the enchantment with Joyce. Instead, it turns into a tale of a whiny, entitled man who wishes his life was more exciting; his friends more engaging, and his problems -- with his neighbors, his family background, and his discovery of the past -- weren't so damn mundane yet so complicated.

    The writing is wonderful, if a bit strained. About midway through, Costello switches from a basic narrative style to a recitation of O'Brien's daily activities. It's a bit unclear why she does this, and it is quite confusing at first, but the reader soon becomes used to it. It reads like a diary entry by a silent narrator, but it becomes an effective means of telling the story.

September 20, 2020

Book Review: The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel,  by Emily St. John Mandel


    If you're into historical fiction from the early 21st Century, have I got a book for you.

    This is the tale of Bernie Madoff, writ large. But it's a slow, meanadering narrative, wandering around Canada, New York, and the high seas before reaching its climax -- then ambling off again. And yet, its main character -- a lost, lonely soul who becomes the second wife of  Jonathan Alkaitis -- is resilient and strong enough to sustain the trek. 
    
    We first meet Vincent as a 13-year-old girl living in the remote northern half of Vancouver Island with her aunt and half-brother. Her mother is recently dead, and Vincent's father is away at various jobs. In the beginning, we are led to believe her half-brother Paul is going to the driver of the story.

    But he mostly fades away as Vincent, through a series of coincidences, finds herself working as a hotel bartender, and meets Alkaitis. She eventually moves in with him, and becomes a citizen of what she calls the country of money. She is unaware of -- and doesn't particularly care -- how Alkaitis uses his financial acumen to become fabulously wealthy. But others do, and the walls come crashing down.

    Vincent moves on. She is, shall we say, adaptable. She is a wonderful character.

    I really liked this book, despite its flaws. It's a tale of money and power, which Vincent accepts but doesn't let  rule her. The story is familiar for anyone who paid attention to the business world in the late aughts. But it's well told, with perspective from the participants and the victims of the scheme.

    Sadly, all of the other characters are mere vessels. A few are given life, but not enough that we know or care too much about them. Alkaitis has some interesting traits, and seems like a nice guy who doesn't take advantage of Vincent, and we know he has led an interesting life. But we are not told enough to care very much about him. He's pretty much a non-descipt, corrupt businessman.

    And Paul seems rather pointless. He pops in and out of the story -- I suppose to let us know he's still around -- but his only other life is being a drug addict and a bad musician.

September 14, 2020

Book Review: Ballad

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Suzanne Collins

   
    This is a prequel to the Hunger Games series, and a much needed backstory to one of the characters. I would not mind seeing more of these.

    It does help to have read the original series, and from what I can tell, this prequel hews closely to the future story.

    It looks into the life of future President John Snow, and it also details how the Hunger Games grew from an unpopular killing and dying spree among unknown urchines to the much-loved extravaganza (well, at least by the Capital crowd) we see in the novels today. Hint: Snow had a lot to do with that.

    The Snow this book portrays is a sympathetic one. If you didn't know who and what he became, you might even be cheering for him at times. But then you realize who he is and what he will do, and you think, "Nah. Screw him."

    The novel's Snow is a somewhat privileged member of the elite living in Capital City. But the capital is not the glitzy, trendy place of the future. Instead, it's a city and populace still suffering from the wars, revolutions, and ecological disasters that forged Panem. You really get involved with the history of Panem, District 12, and the others, a decade or so after it formed.

    It does not reveal the beginnings of Panem, or why or how it started. Let's hope that will be revealed in the next tale in the pre-series. I could get into the backstories of other main characters, with a little bit of a creation tale.

    And, perhaps this time, a map.