stuff I read

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

41880609Summary from Goodreads:
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

Would you like to be slowly, tenderly, and exquisitely murdered by a novel? If yes, read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If no, read it anyway.

This debut novel is a beautiful extended letter from a son to a mother who may not ever choose or be able to read it. Little Dog’s narrative is damn near plotless but reveals very slowly, like attempting to peel off a Band-Aid, so many traumas and scars left by war, racism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We get vignettes of Little Dog’s grandmother Lan raising a biracial child, of Little Dog witnessing his mother abused by his father, of Lan lost in a haze of PTSD and schizophrenia, of Little Dog’s mother working herself to the bone as a manicurist, and of Little Dog himself as he deals with racism from other children and homophobia from his first lover, a boy named Trevor who is also a victim of the growing opioid crisis.

If you liked Alexander Chee’s writing, particularly Edinburgh, you will love Vuong’s writing.

Dear FTC: I had to buy a copy of this book because I was savoring it too much to merely just read a digital galley.

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

45885281Summary from Goodreads:
An unforgettable love story, a novel about past mistakes and betrayals that ripple throughout generations, The Guest Book examines not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America. It is a literary triumph.

The Guest Book follows three generations of a powerful American family, a family that “used to run the world”.

And when the novel begins in 1935, they still do. Kitty and Ogden Milton appear to have everything—perfect children, good looks, a love everyone envies. But after a tragedy befalls them, Ogden tries to bring Kitty back to life by purchasing an island in Maine. That island, and its house, come to define and burnish the Milton family, year after year after year. And it is there that Kitty issues a refusal that will haunt her till the day she dies.

In 1959 a young Jewish man, Len Levy, will get a job in Ogden’s bank and earn the admiration of Ogden and one of his daughters, but the scorn of everyone else. Len’s best friend Reg Pauling has always been the only black man in the room—at Harvard, at work, and finally at the Miltons’ island in Maine.

An island that, at the dawn of the 21st century, this last generation doesn’t have the money to keep. When Kitty’s granddaughter hears that she and her cousins might be forced to sell it, and when her husband brings back disturbing evidence about her grandfather’s past, she realizes she is on the verge of finally understanding the silences that seemed to hover just below the surface of her family all her life.

An ambitious novel that weaves the American past with its present, The Guest Book looks at the racism and power that has been systemically embedded in the US for generations. Brimming with gorgeous writing and bitterly accurate social criticism, it is a literary tour de force.

Read for the BN Book Club at my store. I liked this one quite a bit more than some of the more recent picks for the group.

Blake has a very lovely way of putting words together – she can really set a scene with just a few sentences. She made the characters interesting, not likeable, none of these people are very likeable, but you did want to dig around and see what made them tick. It’s not a very plotty book, so if you like fast-moving stories this won’t be for you. There is a lot of “nice white people grappling with having to acknowledge casual racism/anti-semitism in their family” and some slurs are used on the page, so a bit of a warning about that if you wish to avoid. In discussing the book with the group, we did muse on whether the author was queer-baiting with two characters near the end (also, one of those characters dies in an accident a chapter later – which is not a spoiler since this character’s death is mentioned or alluded to several times early in the book – but for a book chosen to be discussed during Pride month it did smell a bit like a “kill your gays” trope).

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of the book from the publisher provided for the book club leader.

mini-review · stuff I read

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly (Lilac Girls #2)

40988979Summary from Goodreads:
The runaway bestseller Lilac Girls introduced the real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday. This sweeping new novel, set a generation earlier and also inspired by true events, features Caroline’s mother, Eliza, and follows three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War I.

It is 1914 and the world has been on the brink of war so many times, many New Yorkers treat the subject with only passing interest. Eliza Ferriday is thrilled to be traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanov’s. The two met years ago one summer in Paris and became close confidantes. Now Eliza embarks on the trip of a lifetime, home with Sofya to see the splendors of Russia. But when Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia’s Imperial dynasty begins to fall, Eliza escapes back to America, while Sofya and her family flee to their country estate. In need of domestic help, they hire the local fortuneteller’s daughter, Varinka, unknowingly bringing intense danger into their household. On the other side of the Atlantic, Eliza is doing her part to help the White Russian families find safety as they escape the revolution. But when Sofya’s letters suddenly stop coming she fears the worst for her best friend.

From the turbulent streets of St. Petersburg to the avenues of Paris and the society of fallen Russian emigre’s who live there, the lives of Eliza, Sofya, and Varinka will intersect in profound ways, taking readers on a breathtaking ride through a momentous time in history.

I liked much of the story in Lost Roses and it was compelling – the violence of the Russian Revolution, how the emigres were treated like vermin abroad even though they would previously have been catered to as rich, white women, the comparative time period in the US, etc.

However, the actual construction of the book left me cold. The author uses a rotating cast of three narrators, which ordinarily would be fine, but in this case each narrative has a different pace broken up by unnecessary cliff-hangers and the other narratives. Two chapters from Sofya’s point-of-view that should flow directly from one to the other are broken up by a different narrator at what feels like a different time with a cheap cliff-hanger thrown in for good measure. This was more of a problem at the beginning of the book than at the end when the three narrating characters’ timelines had converged. Some of the plotting was revealed to be overly convoluted in the climax of the plot.

Read for the BN Book Club. Note: I have not read Lilac Girls, and understood everything fine, so don’t worry about reading in series-order, especially since this is a prequel.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher for the book club leader.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

40538657._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a unique and unforgettable culture, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

This was…fine. See has stuffed The Island of Sea Women with research and the pacing of the novel is glacial. I also often stopped to wonder – was See the right person to write this story? A lot of the overstuffed feel stems from the fact that this is a historical novel written for an overwhelmingly American and white audience and the narrator does not trust the reader to follow. There was an instance where this worked (the contrast of the two women’s weddings) but I don’t need hanbok defined for me. I have google.

If I hadn’t had to read this to lead the Book Club meeting, I probably would have bailed on it around page 80.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher provided to the Book Club leader at my store.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

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Summary from Goodreads:
Muslim: A Novel is a genre-bending, poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim from one of France’s leading writers. In this novel, the second in a trilogy, Rahmani’s narrator contemplates the loss of her native language and her imprisonment and exile for being Muslim, woven together in an exploration of the political and personal relationship of language within the fraught history of Islam. Drawing inspiration from the oral histories of her native Berber language, the Koran, and French children’s tales, Rahmani combines fiction and lyric essay in to tell an important story, both powerful and visionary, of identity, persecution, and violence.

“Muslim” is a book that I ran across by accident while curating a selection of Muslim writers for a display at the bookstore. Which, in the most ironic way, plays into the central tenet of Rahmani’s novel: that “Muslim” is used as a monolith, a label that erases all nuance. The narrator of “Muslim” weaves back and forth between exploring her childhood as an immigrant from Algeria in France, losing and then finding her childhood Berber language, ruminating on the development of Islam, and contemplating the bleakness of an unnamed camp, in an unnamed location of the world, where the narrator has been taken captive because she is a “Muslim” and is therefore suspect of all manner of unnamable things.

The original French edition was published in 2005, so several later references in the book are very directly pointing to the US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq at that time. I wonder how the book would be similar or different had Rahmani written the book in 2015.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

43692424Summary from Goodreads:
She was beautiful. She was a genius. Could the world handle both? A powerful, illuminating novel about Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.

She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone — if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.

Well, I finished it in time to lead the Book Club discussion last night (we had bad weather, one person came so we’ll try for a make-up date next week). I’m extremely lukewarm on this book. While Hedy Lamarr herself is a really interesting historical figure, I found this fictional account of her life as a married woman in Vienna and her subsequent work in Hollywood to be shallowly drawn and rather simplistic. Bloodless, really. So much was beautifully described, especially the houses and clothes and jewels of Lamarr’s married life, but glossed over the violence of living with a possessive, abusive man. I also wished that the plot spent more time on her life in Hollywood and her scientific inventing, since it came so late in the book. The novel reads easily, though.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher for the Book Club leader.

stuff I read

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
The Lost for Words Bookshop is a compelling, irresistible, and heart-rending audiobook from author Stephanie Butland

Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look carefully, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are some things Loveday will never, ever show you.

Into her hiding place – the bookstore where she works – come a poet, a lover, and three suspicious deliveries.

Someone has found out about her mysterious past. Will Loveday survive her own heartbreaking secrets?

Praise for The Lost for Words Bookshop:

“The Lost for Words Bookshop pushes all my bookish buttons.”–Red (Books to Read)

“Quirky, clever and unputdownable.”–Katie Fforde

“Burns fiercely with love and hurt. A rare and beautiful novel.”–Linda Green, bestselling author of While My Eyes Were Closed

I missed The Lost for Words Bookshop when it published in June because I couldn’t get my hands on a galley. But now that it’s autumn, and good snuggle up and read weather, I sat down to read a novel set in an English bookshop (well, and the copy I borrowed from the store needed to be returned).

The novel is narrated by Loveday Cardew, a solitary and one might say “quirky” (because attitude and tattoos, you know) young woman who works at The Lost for Words Bookshop in York. One day she finds a lost book on the street, posts a notice in the shop window, and meets a poet. He’s nice enough, but invites Loveday to a weekly poetry reading at the pub…which Loveday would rather remove her own skin than attend, but she winds up going because the other option is to get stalked by her shitty ex-boyfriend. In between Loveday’s thoughts on working at the bookshop (which she’s done since the age of 15) and opinions on books and reading, there come three very strange book deliveries which lead Loveday back into her past.

Now, before you get really excited and think this is a wild mystery or Loveday is hiding from the mob or something, it’s not that. I won’t spoil it too much but Loveday lives much of her life reacting to a very traumatic event in her childhood. She herself was not physically harmed (so, no TW for harm to children) though it has caused her to keep everyone that might love or care for her at a distance. The confluence of the book deliveries, the poet, and the ex all combine to break open Loveday’s tough exterior.

The Lost for Words Bookshop was a solid one-sitting read for me full of the solace that books can bring when one is lonely. I enjoyed Loveday’s voice very much, particularly when she spoke directly to the reader. But for all the snarky humor, there is a dark center to this book. There are several scenes with domestic violence and one character suffers from mental illness (although I’m not sure that aspect was handled well). A trigger warning if you need to know in advance.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

stuff I read

There There by Tommy Orange

36692478Summary from Goodreads:
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.

There There leapt out of the computer screen at me when I pulled up the new list of Barnes and Noble Discover picks for Summer 2018. The cover is striking and is a good play with Orange’s last name. But it was the above blurb that had me looking for a galley of this novel immediately.

There There is an amazing debut novel. Orange’s writing very quietly devastated me over the course of 300 pages; relentless, yes, but quiet. I don’t want to say his style is plain, because it’s not, but it doesn’t beat around the bush. It reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison at times. Orange has created a beautiful non-linear novel told through a cast of characters struggling with identity, what it means to “be” Indian, what it means to be an urban Indian, family, legacy, faith, and substance abuse. How does “community” work when everyone else like you is spread out around a city like Oakland, California? How are traditions kept alive, particularly in the face of apathy or active suppression? The book culminates in an act of violence foreshadowed over the course of the narrative.

An instant, necessary classic of 21st century literature.

There There is available today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I almost tackled the manager when we got a galley in the mail at the store.